Advancing a Free Society

Same Old Same Old for the Great Outdoors

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Yesterday, President Obama released a new report on America’s Great Outdoors initiative—yet another White House proposal to expand the size and scope of government. The goal of the program is to promote outdoor recreation by boosting conservation and protecting public lands.

The report includes talk of “listening sessions” and “bottom-up approaches,” but the initiative is hardly local. The President’s proposal is essentially a repackaging of existing programs run by The Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, the EPA, and the Council on Environmental Quality. And while some of the details regarding costs are cagey (the final price tag?—to be determined), there is no doubt the program will increase spending.

I attended one of the first listening sessions, during which a video explained that President Obama intends to build on a “breathtaking legacy of conservation” started by Theodore Roosevelt, whom Obama described as “one of my favorite presidents.”

Here's the problem, if indeed Obama intends to emulate President Roosevelt, then the approach will be top-down, not bottom-up. Theodore Roosevelt, the original progressive, moved the country away from local control of resources toward centralized bureaucratic management. Roosevelt set aside 200 million acres of public land and created several new federal management agencies. More here.

Indeed, the cornerstone of the president’s latest proposal is a fully-funded Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)—the government’s primary land acquisition program. At $900 million a year, the president proposes to use revenues from federal oil and gas leases to fund the LWCF.

But consider this: if you set aside land for conservation, don’t you have a responsibility to provide the resources necessary to conserve it? Maintenance of our existing federal public lands infrastructure is already lacking—as evidenced by leaky sewer systems, crumbling roads, and dilapidated buildings. As I wrote in the LA Times, the National Parks Conservation Association notes that despite millions in stimulus funding, a chronic backlog of about $8 billion (with a B!) exists for current maintenance and preservation projects.

The LWCF won’t solve this problem; it only provides funding for acquisition of new lands. This type of “park-barrel politics” benefits politicians eager to cut ribbons on new parks, but neglects the conservation needs on public lands the government already owns.

Besides conservation, the program plans to increase Americans’ awareness of the outdoors—especially for children. It is true that children are spending less time outdoors. Indeed, visits to national parks have been trending downward since 1987; in 2008, fewer people entered national parks than they did 20 years ago. Parents are no longer sending their kids to camps or even outside to play. Author Richard Louve coined this phenomena "nature deficit disorder." As a parent and an environmentalist, this situation concerns me, but is it the federal government's job to solve this problem? Here are some alternatives in a special report on outdoor education.

The Great Outdoors Initiative is pitched as a bottom up program looking to the private sector, nonprofits, and the people who live and work in towns across America to identify innovative solutions to protect the environment and entice children to appreciate nature—seems like a good deal. But buyer beware: This looks like nothing more than the “same old, same old” thrown together in a gift basket, tied with a gold ribbon holding a tag reading BILL ME LATER.