Great Outdoors America Week 2014 comes to a close

More than 300 D.C.-area kids headed down to Bladensburg Waterfront Park for canoeing and other nature activities on June 25 as part of Go Week.

In June, people descended on Washington, DC, for the annual Great Outdoors America Week (GO Week).

During GO Week (June 23-26), The Wilderness Society partnered with other conservation groups to remind the nation's leaders how much Americans care about the great outdoors.

As one of the largest annual conservation- and outdoor-focused events in Washington, DC, GO Week raises awareness around outdoors issues and brings together hundreds of diverse organizations and activists to meet with lawmakers and administrators to advocate for our outdoor way of life.

Events during this year’s GO Week included a canoeing trip and outdoor activities festival for more than 300 local kids; the launch of a series of 50 conservation service corps projects in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act; a Capitol Hill briefing on the value of nature to veterans; and a screening of a film about the first African American team to climb Alaska’s Denali, the tallest peak in North America.  

Here are some of the highlights from Great Outdoors America Week 2014

June 25 - Honoring Congress' conservation champions

GO Week 2014 drew to a close with a ceremony on Capitol Hill honoring three members of Congress for their conservation achievements: Reps. Rush Holt (D-NJ), George Miller (D-CA) and Jim Moran (D-VA).

All three lawmakers are preparing to retire, and although the states they represent are geographically disparate, they also share a common cause: protecting America’s great natural heritage and working to make it accessible to all people. Each received a plaque featuring a great wildland from their home state.

Read more about the awards and recipients.

June 25 - Veterans talk about how nature helps them heal

Josh Brandon, a combat veteran from the war in Iraq who suffers from PTSD and now works on getting veterans outdoors.

As GO Week continued, talk turned to those for whom time in the outdoors is a form of therapy. A panel focusing on the importance of nature for veterans and first responders featured three

speakers who have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) themselves, and found outdoor recreation to be an invaluable complement to formal counseling. They outlined a new campaign to get outdoors therapy added to mental health treatment methods at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), an agency that provides patient care and benefits to veterans and their families. “Wilderness is better than any therapy or drug,” said Josh Brandon, outdoors military organizer for the Sierra Club.  

Stacy Bare, an Iraq veteran, noted that veterans and first responders, who enjoy a high level of respect and admiration in the public eye, also have an obligation to advocate for outdoors recreation and public lands protection at-large: “this is not just recreation, but a fundamental building block of America.”

Click here to read about a veterans outdoors writing workshop hosted by The Wilderness Society.

June 25 - outdoor recreation as an economic powerhouse

Photo: Jessica Wahl of the Outdoor Industry Association speaks at the briefing.

Measured at $646 billion in direct spending last year lone, “outdoor recreation is an economic powerhouse,” said Jessica Wahl of the Outdoor Industry Association.  In addition to that spending: 1.6 million jobs supported by the outdoors sector.

It’s no wonder the economic benefits of wilderness and other protected public lands was the topic of a Capitol Hill briefing today as part of GO Week. In some ways, this is a new wrinkle; jobs and revenue help to frame the value of public lands in a new light, beyond what can be extracted from them. “Making a living off the land has a whole different meaning now,” said Ashley Korenblat, executive director at Public Lands Solutions. 

Lucas Herdon, with the Green Chamber of Commerce in Las Cruces, New Mexico, cited the recent national monument designation for Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks area near Las Cruces as a great example of protected public lands that bring benefit his community.  Learn more about Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and why it deserved to be protected.

June 25 - Local youth treated to canoeing and climbing on the Anacostia

On day three of GO Week, more than 300 local kids were treated to canoeing, rock climbing and other nature activities on the historic Anacostia River in Maryland. The Wilderness Society partnered with the Outdoor Alliance for Kids and Wilderness Inquiry who hosted the event, which gives city kids a chance to connect with America's parks and wild places.

Video: Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams speaks at youth event on the Anacostia river on June 25.

Among speakers at the event were Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“From urban parks like this one, to the most pristine wilderness areas, America’s public lands provide opportunities to relieve stress, get active, have fun and connect with nature,” said  Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams. “It is up to all of us to share these rewarding experiences with the next generation.”

June 24 - Film screening: Expedition Denali

A panel at the Expedition Denali screening.

A film screening at the Department of Agriculture offered a break from briefings and discussion. Expedition Denali chronicles the journey of a group of mountain climbers convened by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to take on Alaska’s famed Denali (or Mount McKinley) in the summer of 2013. They would become the first team of African Americans to do so, and were later named “Heroes of the Year” by Backpacker magazine for their efforts.

In addition to reaching the top of North America’s tallest mountain, the expedition was intended to set an example for young people of color, who currently do not participate in outdoor recreation at the same rate as other Americans. With such communities growing, it is all the more vital that they be given the opportunity (and encouragement) to stay healthy, active and engaged with nature.

Learn more about Expedition Denali and watch a short trailer for the film below.

Expedition Denali Short from Distill Productions on Vimeo.

June 24 - Diversity in the next generation of leaders

Michael Casaus (second from foreground), The Wilderness Society's New Mexico state director, listens during a panel discussion on Latino leadership in the conservation movement.

“We’re entering a new era in the conservation movement where Latinos will take their rightful place as leaders,” is how The Wilderness Society's New Mexico state director, Michael Casaus, summed up the role of Latinos at a Capitol Hill briefing titled “Building the Next Generation of Diverse, Nature-Smart Leaders.”

So how do we build that next generation of nature-smart leaders?

“What we’ve learned is that we can’t expect Latinos to come to us. We have to meet them on their terms, in their communities, and speak to them using language that resonates with them. We learned the importance of hiring Latino staff and developing local Latino leaders,” Casaus says.  He attributes two national monuments designated in New Mexico over the past 14 months to efforts generate support for them in the state’s Latino community.

Much work remains to be done, however, to bring diversity to conservation. Federal agencies hiring more people from local communities would be another step in the right direction.  Casaus said the Bureau of Land Management has hired Latino managers in the Taos, New Mexico area, to better match BLM’s face to the local community.

The need for greater diversity in conservation spans across government, nonprofit and private sectors.  “We know we lack diversity” in the conservation sector, said Marc Berejka, director of government and community affairs for Recreation Equipment Inc. Foundation. The broad health benefits and enormous scope of the $646 billion outdoors economy should help to unite urban, rural and partisan as well as racial gaps, Berejka says. 

Also participating on today’s panel were Juan Martinez, director of Natural Leaders Network, Maite Arce, president of Hispanic Access Foundation, Dr. Brian Smedley, vice president at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and Ray Rivera with Leadership for Educational Equity.  

June 24 - 50 for the 50th project launch

Conservation stewards from Groundwork Anacostia check the map for "50 for the 50th" projects.

GO Week got underway in fitting fashion, as The Wilderness Society launched “50 for the 50th,” a drive to complete 50 conservation projects in 50 wild places, in collaboration with conservation corps across the country, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams kicked off the event by presenting an award in honor of the work of the Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service, to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Jamie noted that the Department of Agriculture has allocated over $25 million dollars annually to support conservation corps work across the country in the last two years, and been an invaluable leader in getting young people outdoors working on restoring the land. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Robert Bonnie was on hand to accept the Great Outdoors Champion award on behalf of the agency.

Agnes Vianzon talks about her work with the California Conservation Corps.

However, the focus of the event was on the civilian conservation stewards themselves, the ordinary people who do extraordinary things to ensure that wildlands are preserved and can be used by all Americans:

  • Michael Richter (Montana Conservation Corps), who leads a crew working in Yellowstone National Park, talked about giving up his desk job for the meaningful work of making the outdoors accessible to all (“outdoor recreation is almost a religion in Montana,” he explained).
  • Anthony Ciocco (Southwest Conservation Corps) talked about leading ecological restoration crews on the Navajo Nation to rebuild damaged eco-systems and constructing trails to provide access to the outdoors for local communities: “Within the corps, a lot of what we do is develop leadership.”
  • Agnes Vianzon and Priscila Flores (above), both of the California Conservation Corps. Agnes talked about falling in love with the mountains during her first season in the Corps, in Kings Canyon National Park in 2002. Priscila, who is a crew leader in Los Padres National Forest, discussed the passion for wilderness she has developed in the course of her work--how she “went in not knowing anything” and now considers the outdoors “something I want to be a part of for the rest of my life.”

The Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams (right) with Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Robert Bonnie and the Great Outdoors Champion award.