America's Great Outdoors
April 16, 2010
Each one of us seeks the outdoors for many reasons; to relax, to play, to hunt and fish, to exercise, to learn; to spend time with our family, to be refreshed and even inspired.
One hundred years ago, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt challenged the nation's governors and caretakers of America's land and water to consider what he called "the most weighty question now before the people of the United States: the conservation of our natural resources" -- how best to use, and yet protect, the great American outdoors.
The result was a century of innovation and progress: much of it arising from community efforts to protect the places Americans love, both public and private.
A nationwide system of national parks, cultural and historic sites; millions of acres of national forests, wildlife refuges, and designated wilderness; a National Landscape Conservation System; and thousands of miles of trails, scenic seashores, and protected rivers. And on the state and local level, tens of thousands of parks and recreation areas, and conservation commissions that manage watersheds and fish and game populations for future generations.
These lands held in public trust are special places that embody the founding principles of our nation.
Roosevelt called it our "essential democracy": that all Americans should be able to enjoy what these lands provide, and then pass it on to their children.
America's conservation heritage includes its private lands as well.
Our homesteads, farms, and ranches play an important role protecting woods and watersheds, keeping our air and water clean, providing wildlife migration corridors, and defining our national character.
Americans have always had a strong connection with the land. Yet our reasons to conserve are as vast and varied as our nation’s landscapes.
But everyone agrees that our open spaces public or private, large or small, a city park or a neighborhood playground are essential to the quality of life for all Americans.
Now it is our turn to look to the future to protect and preserve what we hold dear.
But first we must understand the challenges we face today. Global climate change and pollution place new stress on natural habitats; complicating land and water management.
80% of Americans now live in urban areas, many with limited access to clean, safe open spaces.
Poorly planned development fragments lands, disrupts natural systems, and imperils productive farmlands. Americans are losing touch with those historical places where our nation was formed; sites that bind us with a shared heritage.
Our children spend half as much time outside as their parents once did as we face an epidemic of childhood obesity.
Innovation and collaboration will be required to meet these challenges.
A start has already been made.
Tens of thousands of young Americans are actively participating in youth conservation organizations taking root across the country; a new generation reconnecting with nature as they build trails, plant trees, and restore the land.
State governments and local communities are establishing parks, trails, and environmental education centers. Innovative partnerships between farmers and ranchers, sportsmen and conservation organizations, private businesses and public agencies are conserving millions of acres for the benefit of communities, wildlife, recreation, and local economies.
Nearly 2,000 land trusts are now part of the fabric of our country, allowing landowners to take an active role in preserving their land and water for the benefit of future generations.
But this is just a beginning.
To meet the challenge of conservation in this new century, we must learn from and support the efforts that are already making progress in cities and towns, counties and states throughout the land.
Because more than two thirds of America is privately owned, we must also nurture and support sustainable conservation practices.
And economic conditions require that we be smarter and more efficient in our conservation decisions.
America's great outdoors connect us as a people and as a nation, honor our cultural heritage, and restore our spirit.
In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt said, "The conservation of our resources is the fundamental question before this nation." And citizens of all types took action to improve and preserve their nation.
A century later, we face the same fundamental question. And we will answer it as well.
Because, as President Roosevelt said, "We are not building this country of ours for a day.
It is to last through the ages."