Live-blogging Great Outdoors America Week: Fighting to save our wild places

Editor's Note: West Virginia Wilderness Coalition Campaign Coordinator Mike Costello is sharing his Great Outdoors America Week (Go America Week) trip to Washington D.C. in live time through this blog, Twitter and Facebook. Costello is one of many citizens from around the country spending the week here advocating to protect America's wild places.

Learn more about Go America Week and stay tuned to this site to experience the week with him. You can also Follow TWS on Twitter @wilderness and Costello @WVWilderness for additional insight as our own "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington."

3:00 p.m.: I'm back in West Virginia with the satisfaction that the message of conservation and wilderness protection was communicated to our nation's leaders during my time in Washington. Great Outdoors America week was immensely productive and I am proud of the support for public lands that came from all corners of the nation. This past week was a testament to participatory democracy to which we all have a right. Arriving home from the capital, I am optimistic that the officials that we elected to represent our lands, air and water received our thoughts and will begin to act accordingly.

I'd like to leave you with the following video of John Manchester, mayor of my hometown Lewisburg, West Virginia, speaking on Capitol Hill yesterday. In it, Mayor Manchester describes how the people of Lewisburg expressed their desires and ultimately protected the wilderness that they love. It is my hope that this form of participatory democracy, which proved successful in West Virginia, will become commonplace across our country.

I invite you to vocalize your appreciation for American wilderness. We could use all the help we can get to ensure that the wild places we love survive for future generations to enjoy. Thanks for following along with me on my journey to Washington!

Friday, Sept. 23 (Day 4), 10:00 a.m.: It has been a long and demanding week in Washington, but I am encouraged by the progress made by the outdoor community during Great Outdoors America Week. I am excited to return to Lewisburg, West Virginia and the wild places that inspired me to travel to the capital this week. I know that the message of support for American wilderness reached federal officials and the public.

To conclude Great Outdoors America Week, I will be providing some closing comments and links to videos from the week throughout the day.

Finally, my colleague at the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, Mark Jennings, provided some insight yesterday regarding the encounters we had with our elected officials. Mark expressed his belief in participatory democracy stating, “Elected officials do want to hear what their constituents think and feel … If you want better government, you have to encourage others to participate more.”

Mark’s observations really cut to the core of why he and I and more than 200 other Americans converged on Washington this week. We believe in our right to enjoy public lands, and we want our leaders to know this. I encourage everyone to make your voice heard to our government so that all of us and our values are properly represented.

5:30 p.m.:  On our way to the Great Outdoors America closing reception, and looking forward celebrating a successful week of working to continue the conservation of America’s natural treasures. We’ve been fortunate to meet with industry leaders, state officials and many other members of the environmental community. The openness with which our messages were received gives me hope that stronger wilderness protection is not far off. It has become clear this week that Americans do still cherish their wild places.

While all of the groups and individuals involved in Great Outdoors America Week are working towards the same general goal, there is a variety of methods, tactics and protocols being employed. All 217 Great Outdoors America participants wish to conserve and protect American wilderness, but for myriad reasons. I got a chance to speak with activists from across the country this week, all with the same passion for protecting whatever piece of wilderness it was that was closest to their heart. When speaking with Jill Gottesman from The Wilderness Society in North Carolina, she iterated this point, saying that the most profound part of her week was “collaborating with others and working toward the same goals from different angles.”

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve witnessed the interconnectedness of the causes for which we all advocate and how they relate to countless other issues facing our country. Our lands, waters and air are intrinsically important to every American citizen, and relate either directly or indirectly to the issues that impact their daily lives. Protecting our public lands will positively impact employment, public health, farmland, and any other causes for which our friends and neighbors fight. Conserving our wild places means preserving the American way of life we are all privileged to enjoy.

Enough talk for today! Time to enjoy some much deserved downtime with all the folks who made this week possible.

4:00 p.m.:  While Great Outdoors America Week here in Washington represents the environmental community’s hopes to catalyze national legislation in support of public lands, some of the achievements described this week at the local and state level have provided the biggest success stories. Of course my hometown’s own efforts to protect our wilderness have yielded legal and symbolic victories. As Mayor John Manchester (pictured below, right, with TWS President Bill Meadows) mentioned earlier at the panel discussion, the Wild Monongahela Bill, which designates large portions of federal lands in the Monongahela National Forest as Wilderness, gained national support and ultimately made its way through Congress because of local support, especially in Lewisburg.

The Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows (L) and Mayor John Manchster from this morning’s briefing

Similarly, Lewisburg banned Marcellus Shale drilling earlier this year, sending a message to Washington, as well as industry polluters, that we value our wilderness, our water, and our public health.

Just yesterday, the Maine Wilderness Bill was introduced by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME), which would designate 13 islands off Maine’s coast as wilderness. These local victories represent the value of bottom-up, grassroots initiatives. Unfortunately, widespread top-down efforts, such as Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s Great Outdoors Giveaway, stand in opposition to passionate communities like Lewisburg. That is why Mayor Manchester’s success stories are so important. They show that in the face of some attacks against wilderness, citizens and communities can affect public opinion and real change.

Great Outdoors America Week is quickly drawing to a conclusion, and though we heard earlier that environmental efforts sometimes resemble marathons, it’s time to sprint through the finish of this week to win as many hearts and minds. Looking forward to celebrating the outdoor community’s successes tonight at the closing reception.

1:30 p.m.: The wilderness and public lands issues briefing just wrapped up on the Hill, and we got some important encouragement from a panel that definitely speaks from experience. We got to hear from William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society; Rick Johnson, the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League; Athan Manual, the director of land protection at the Sierra Club; and John Manchester, the mayor of Lewisburg, WV -- my town and the recently voted "coolest small town in America". (One of the voting criteria was, of course, that the town have access to wilderness!) 

One of the recurring focal points of the talks was the importance of building support for our environmental issues at a local level. In discussing the political push for greater wilderness conservation, Meadows pointed out that "politics won't change soon enough to do it any other way than from the ground up". It was fitting then, that Mayor Manchester followed by talking about the community in Lewisburg, and the role that they play in the protecting and sharing of the wilderness surrounding their town.

Rick Johnson also reminded us of a point that I brought up earlier, which is the importance of bipartisan support. He encouraged not just pushing to build new bipartisan support but also doing our part to acknowledge the bridges that already exist across the aisle. It was great to see someone like Rep. Robert Dold, a Republican congressman from Illinois, be honored yesterday evening for his work in environmental conservation.

I'll be keeping these things in mind as we head into more meetings this afternoon, and remember the mantra that I heard from many of the panelists today -- "This process is a marathon, not a race!"

11:23 a.m.: Are you free this evening? Come join us from 5-7 p.m. at the Mott House (122 Maryland Ave., NE in D.C.) for a reception to honor the America's Great Outdoors Initiative -- the Obama administration's effort to get more people outdoors. Meet White House officials and a whole bunch of great people from national and local conservation and environmental organizations. It's free and there will be food and drinks! Not sure who the speakers will be yet but will share that when I know more.

10:39 a.m.: After two days of determined and passionate lobbying on Capitol Hill, Wednesday evening offered an opportunity to celebrate and honor those who advocate for American wilderness. Several members of Congress were recognized for their past and continued commitment to the environment and our public lands. Among those honored were Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO), Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME), Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), and Rep. Robert Dold (R-IL).

It was especially refreshing to visit and interact with representatives from both sides of the aisle. In this time of partisan bickering, when so many causes fall victim to government stalemates, I was reassured by several government leaders that our nation's lands are still valued and cherished. A common theme expressed by each honoree was that it is important that we as Americans voice our demands to protect wilderness. Fortunately, last night proved that there are certainly some state leaders who will hear the voices of the 217 advocates in Washington to celebrate Great Outdoors America week and environmentalists all over the country.

Today is the final day of lobbying and advocacy. Time to sprint through the finish to close out a successful week!

Thursday, Sept. 22 (Day 3), 10:12 a.m.: Just had a chance to read the press release The Wilderness Society sent out about the three members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that TWS honored for their environmental leadership. Kudos to Representatives Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), who I wrote about the other day.

“Latino lawmakers are important leaders in efforts to protect our air, water, and land,” TWS President William H. Meadows said. “We are proud to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month by honoring these three champions of America’s environment and the great outdoors.”

4:59 p.m.: Headed to the Capitol Visitor Center for a 6 p.m. reception honoring the Congressional champions who work to protect America's great outdoors.

3:54 p.m.: I’ve spent my time since Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s discussion preparing for a late afternoon meeting with a West Virginia delegation on Capitol Hill. My afternoon has been quiet by lobbying standards but I’ve made my preparations to discuss the dangers of several pieces of anti-environmental legislation. Again, the Great Outdoors Giveaway looms over my preparations and seems even more relevant and imposing considering the events of Great Outdoors America Week thus far.

The Great Outdoors Giveaway threatens federal roadless areas in 30 states. Public lands in West Virginia are especially threatened; 200,000 acres of national forest used for hunting and fishing sit in the crosshairs of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) proposed bill. Specifically, Seneca Creek, Tea Creek and Canaan Mountain -- all popular hiking destinations for West Virginians and visitors -- remain vulnerable.

Hundreds of small business owners in rural communities surrounding Monongahela National Forest are supported by local outdoor recreation and tourism. Giving away our outdoor spaces means giving away their livelihoods. Similarly, like Secretary Vilsack stated this morning, failure to conserve these public lands eliminates economic opportunities for the rural communities adjacent to the forest.

As you can see, legislation such as the Great Outdoors Giveaway threatens more than the hikers and campers that are passionate about the outdoors. By defeating Rep. McCarthy’s bill, we can maintain our rich outdoor legacy and create jobs and economic growth.

With this message in mind, I’m off to the Hill once more to meet with a delegation from West Virginia. Afterwards, I look forward to an event at the Capitol Visitor’s Center for a little mid-week reflection and celebration with the entire Great Outdoors America community.

2:00 p.m.: We’re preparing now for our meetings on Capitol Hill this afternoon. Luckily I got a chance to upload some more photos from the events yesterday as well as the talk with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack this morning.

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) accepting her award for Hispanic Environmental Leadership:

Congressman Raul Grijalva speaking after accepting his Hispanic Environmental Leadership Award:

And from this morning, Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, during his talk moderated by Former Secretary Carol Browner:

We’re looking forward to our meetings this afternoon with great anticipation and optimism!

1:12 p.m.:  All the talk this morning from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the importance of wilderness conservation to rural economies relates closely to one of the greatest threats to public lands in West Virginia and across the nation. The Great Outdoors Giveaway, legislation proposed by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), would open tens of millions of acres of national forest to polluting corporations. Specifically, 200,000 acres of wilderness in West Virginia, including wild place in the Monongahela National Forest like Seneca Creek, Tea Creek and Canaan Mountain, are threatened.

These lands in my state, and in many others across the United States, are the rural areas that Secretary Vilsack discussed this morning at the Center for American Progress. If Congress surrenders our wilderness, then we will lose the potential for millions of outdoor recreation, conservation and tourism jobs. That’s not to say that all forest development is bad. However, some areas need to be protected for the use of future generations and for sustainable job creation.

Wilderness and jobs: these continue to be strong themes for Great Outdoors America Week. I anticipate that the Great Outdoors Giveaway will come up this afternoon as we prepare to meet with our West Virginia delegation this afternoon. Time to get to work on our presentation this afternoon as we look to broaden the base of support for public lands.

11:35 a.m.:  Enjoyed the conversation with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. It seems that the buzz about jobs here in DC and throughout the country is really on everyone’s minds. Part of what Secretary Vilsack focused on in this talk was the amount of jobs that are created and sustained by large protected areas of wilderness in the rural areas of our country. There are some people who argue that that land would be best put to use if it was turned over to corporate polluters and developers. But if we really want to make the most of our land by creating economic opportunity, it should be placed in the hands of those of us who can best care for it and pass it on to be used by future generations.

Wednesday, Sept. 21; 9 a.m.: Day two of Great Outdoors America Week and we're at the Center for American Progress in downtown Washington. The CAP Action Fund will be presenting about jobs on public lands, specifically recreation, tourism and conservation jobs in rural communities. These jobs are essential to the well-being of rural economies and physical health. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, an excellent representative of rural America, will offer his thoughts. I'm looking forward to this discussion as all of us involved in Great Outdoors America Week prepare for another day of meetings with our state and national leaders.

Last report for Day 1; 5:35 p.m.: Just finished our group photograph on the steps of the Capitol. Ran into more good people than I can list here but I really enjoyed my conversation with three folks in particular. Even pulled out a video camera and made like Charlie Rose. Hope to pull a video together this week. Here are the highlights:

  • Jill Gottesman from The Wilderness Society’s North Carolina office. This was the first time she has ever done some lobbying in D.C.  She thought it was really important to get face-to-face time with staffers. Many she talked to were already supportive of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. She said Go America Week is a great opportunity to educate local officials regarding projects she’s working on in her state.
  • Jerry Greer. He’s an environmental and natural history photographer from Tennessee. It’s his first time lobbying, too. He’s here supporting the Tennessee Wilderness Act. He said he’s encouraged because it seemed like many Hill staffers are on board with his views. The bill would give Tennessee its first Wilderness in 25 years.
  • Mark Jennings, my colleague from the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition. He said he encountered a theme while listening to speakers and other participants – the need to broaden the base of support for each conservation and environmental mission everyone is representing this week. He has found that in our work in Greenbriar County, people hop on board behind our causes once they get good information. We often find they had been opposed to us because they had been steered the wrong way by people seeking to distort why conservationists want to protect land.

4:02 p.m.: Taking the Metro to the Capitol for group picture with Go America Week participants. It’s a soggy day in D.C. but this symbolic photo means a lot to me – and it’s the perfect place to think about “Mr. Smith.”

3:11 p.m.: Continuing on with our meetings with advocates from around the country today, you really realize how big and important the national community of conservation in our country is. It’s a nice reminder that none of us have to feel so isolated in our causes because there’s a vast network of people who are working in different areas of our country that vary greatly in landscape and size. Despite obvious differences between our goals, we definitely have a great deal of similarities!

2:00 p.m.: Just finished talking with other wilderness advocates who have come to DC to lobby for their causes. We got the chance to discuss the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia with them and our goals for the protection of this natural treasure. Also got a chance to upload a few quick pictures from the morning:

My colleague Mark Jennings from the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition and me before the event:

The Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows starts the week off with his inspirational address:

The youth delegation from Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore, MD is here to advocate for wilderness preservation. They’re planning on heading to the Capitol this afternoon:

Michael Carroll from The Wilderness Society, one of the main organizers of Great Outdoors America Week, chats with middle school students from Baltimore who were sharing photo books that they had put together depicting outdoor excursions they had participated in through the Sierra Club:

Hopefully we’ll be able to catch up with some of these advocates later this afternoon at the Capitol building!

10:40 a.m.: It was great to hear administration officials talk this morning about America’s Great Outdoors and the real benefit of protecting public lands and outdoor spaces instead of just using them for development. There were some really valuable points given on the economic and health benefits of public lands. These have real implications for public lands in West Virginia. In our state, there are many gateway communities to national forests that have historically relied on the timber and coal industries. However, these opportunities have been dwindling for years. As we’ve heard from administration officials this morning, conservation efforts and expanded recreational access to public lands will result in economic opportunities for these communities in the future.

10:21 a.m.:  Will Shafroth (see below) says that one of the things that they’re working on is bringing the outdoors to everyone. He says, “We want to find more close-to-home places that make wilderness more accessible to everyone.” One example he mentioned is the Floyd Bennett Field in NY which is being turned into the largest urban camping ground in the country. It was the site of the first American plane take-off in WWII and will provide over 900 campsites just a 30 minute drive outside of New York City.

10:10 a.m.: Jay Jensen of Council on Environmental Quality (he's the associate director for Land and Water Ecosystems) says that the best way to get involved is to keep on doing the conservation work that you’re doing, to work with your community to broaden the support for your cause, and to work to create public and private partnerships. Robert Bonnie, U.S. Department of Agriculture senior advisor for the environment and climate, says that he hopes we come to Congress with representations of our tangible examples of America’s great outdoors

The youth delegation just arrived (they were stuck in traffic)-- Will Shafroth, the Department of the Interior's acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, just recognized them and said that he’s glad that there here to help advocate for the wilderness. He says it’s because of them (the youth) that “we all do the work that we’re doing.”

9:50 a.m.:  Just listened to TWS President William H. Meadows kick off Great Outdoors America Week by reminding us why we’re all here. He says, “We’re here today as one group with a diversity of interests … to make our vision real.” He reminds us that we’re being faced with one of the most difficult political environments that he has ever worked in and stresses that is why it’s important for us all to come together to talk to people, lobby on the Hill, and convey to members of Congress what our vision is and what it can be. Looking forward to the rest of the speakers!

9:15 a.m.: I hope Congress and other agency officials come away with the message today from the people of America to protect public lands and our national treasures.

9:05 a.m.: Just arrived at the Department of Interior for a morning welcome by William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society. I'm surrounded by people from all over the country who have all kinds of different reasons to protect the great outdoors. I look forward to meeting more of them as the week unfolds.