The United States has a great outdoor legacy inherited from past generations that includes national parks, forests, rivers and wild lands.
Nonetheless, many Americans today are losing touch with that inheritance, even as valuable lands continue to slip away at an alarming rate.
Now, says Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the time has come for a new 21st century strategy that will address what type of outdoor legacy the nation will leave future generations-and whether those generations will value what has been left.
"Inherent in that, when you talk about conservation agendas, there has to be a conservation movement," Salazar said. "There has to be a march for conservation that will help us define this agenda for the 21st century."
Salazar was speaking to a crowd of 500 that gathered in Annapolis on June 25 for one of a series of "listening sessions" that he and other administration officials are conducting around the country as part of the America's Great Outdoors Initiative to identify where that march should lead the nation's conservation programs.
The listening sessions aim to gather input about the lands and resources important to different regions, and to hear about local programs that are effective, how the federal government can help and key challenges.
Part of the initiative's goal is identifying areas of conservation significance that need protection, as well as lands and rivers that should be prioritized for restoration, Salazar said. That could include everything from protecting farming and ranching regions from development to protecting critical wildlife migration corridors.
Salazar said the strategy would invest in "landscapes of national significance," which includes the Chesapeake Bay region, where state and federal agencies are working with nonprofit organizations and local governments to develop a Treasured Landscape Initiative that will protect large areas that are ecologically, historically and culturally significant.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, one of the speakers, told the secretary that the program should ensure that local and state views are represented as conservation areas are selected. He suggested that a common information tool be developed to identify priority lands, one similar to the GreenPrint program that Maryland uses, so state and federal agencies shared the same information and goals. He added that new conservation areas, including parks, could include private, state and public lands and be managed cooperatively, in a manner similar to Assateague Island's national and state seashores.
Equally important to conserving rural land, Salazar said, was establishing "the next generation of great urban parks" to make it easier for people to get out, and enjoy, the outdoors. About 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities or suburbs.
That theme was echoed by several speakers, who stressed the importance of reintroducing children to the outdoors. "We must engage our youth in the outdoors at the earliest ages," said Jacqueline Carrera, president of the Parks & People Foundation in Baltimore, who envisioned creating a continuum of parks that reach from cities out to state and national parks. "Local parks are the places most people are able to access."
Some suggested that more emphasis should be placed on merging conservation with economic development, such as Pennsylvania Wilds, where the state is promoting tourism in its northwest region, which is economically depressed, but rich in scenery and wildlife.
Many speakers pointed out, and Salazar acknowledged, that the major impediment is funding. To robust applause, he called for restoring full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress created in 1964 to use royalties from drilling on the outer continental shelf to help federal, state and local governments purchase land for conservation.
Although the fund is authorized to provide $900 million a year, Congress has made that amount available only twice. "It is a broken promise to Americans," Salazar said.
Several people, including O'Malley, suggested that states should be allowed to use money from the fund to develop public access, in addition to its traditional purpose of protecting land. Indeed, time and again speakers made the connection between outdoor participation and stewardship.
In one of the hearing's most poignant moments, Rob Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, told of how he grew up on a road that dead ended on the water's edge, where boats would offload produce shipped from Eastern Shore farms. He and his siblings played outdoors and had access to the water-and three out of six went on to careers directly related to protecting the Chesapeake.
But when Etgen moved to the Eastern Shore and became a Big Brother to an 8-year-old boy in Easton, he found the boy "had never seen a deer, never caught a crab, never caught a fish, never been fishing, never been wading in a river, and he was in Easton right there at the headwaters of several rivers. That just blew me away."
Etgen said the child was not unusual. "That's just the way it is. We are making good progress, but there is a lot of work to do."
Harkening back to the stewardship ethic developed in his own youth, Etgen said greater effort was needed to provide easier access to allow people who don't live near the water, or own a car, to get to waterways and nearby parks. That, he said, was critical to building support for conservation. "We are much stronger together than as individuals."
For details about America's Great Outdoors Initiative, or to comment, visit www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors/.