America’s Great Outdoors can grow a new generation of conservationists

Young women at Outdoor Nation event in Central Park.

Five-hundred young Americans from across the United States converged on Central Park this weekend for Outdoor Nation — a national youth conservation summit and festival.

Having hundreds of young people in Central Park isn’t a particularly big deal. What is significant is that the Obama administration has wisely decided that the Outdoor Nation event would provide a great forum for a youth-oriented listening session for its America’s Great Outdoors initiative.

America’s Great Outdoors is a reflection of President Obama’s background as a grassroots organizer. It is an effort to hear Americans’ best ideas for connecting people — especially our youth — with nature, to learn from examples of how local collaborative conservation measures are successful, and what should be included in a new conservation strategy for the 21st century.

The administration is making a real commitment to this nation-wide effort. Engaged in the listening sessions are leaders from the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the First Lady’s initiative to get kids outdoors.

After hearing stories from across the country this summer, the administration will compile the learned information into a November report that will focus on a revitalized national outdoors initiative that works for all Americans, from rural communities to our biggest cities. Joining America’s Great Outdoors with the First Lady’s Let’s Move Outside effort provides a great opportunity to protect, connect and restore our public lands while advocating for improving the overall health and wellbeing of America’s youth.

Last week, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, “The Department of the Interior applauds the First Lady for promoting outside activities for children and wants our national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands to contribute greatly to that effort because these lands and waters belong to all Americans. Let’s Move Outside! goes hand-in-hand with the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative announced by President Obama at the Interior Department in April to reconnect Americans — especially children — with nature and the outdoors.”

Tragic events have made this a ripe time for change. In the wake of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, America’s youth understands better than ever that we have a shared responsibility to protect the natural world upon which we depend. As a young conservationist, I look up to many conservation leaders who rose to action to care for our shared natural places during times of crisis, such as Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold and Sandra Postel.

Today, I believe we are witnessing a similar trend with the catastrophe in the Gulf. We have an opportunity to foster a new generation of conservation leaders who can bring fresh ideas and cutting-edge strategies to the table. I have seen first-hand the tremendous potential that is waiting to be tapped in my peers, and I am thrilled that the administration is reaching out to young people who are vying to make a difference.

Children playing at Outdoor Nation in Central Park.The America’s Great Outdoors listening session at Outdoor Nation is an ideal environment for young people to advocate for protecting our public lands so we all can continue to benefit from clean water, healthy air, recreation activities and restoration jobs for years to come. The Obama administration can spur local economies and create jobs for conservation workers — young and old alike — by restoring our developed public lands nationwide.

And the Obama administration wants to hear from us, especially youth, in molding the November report. We now have a seat at the table, and are being asked to share our ideas for protecting the places we love at

I applaud the Obama administration for coming to New York to listen to America’s youth. After all, these young voices will not just inherit the Earth; they will be its future stewards.

Christina Wong is a Ph.D student at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and serves on the Governing Council at The Wilderness Society.

Young women at Outdoor Nation event in Central Park.
Children playing at Outdoor Nation in Central Park.