Public lands can enhance America's Great Outdoors

Bill Meadows

The Obama Administration's kick-off of America's Great Outdoors comes less than a week before the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Together, the Administration, sportsmen, private landowners, tribal leaders, recreationists, and organizations like The Wilderness Society are addressing conservation in the 21st century. As the primary stewards of our public lands and conservation heritage, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Council on Environmental Quality Chairperson Nancy Sutley will lead in protecting and restoring our shared, natural wonders for future generations.

The President has encouraged and invited every American to engage in this effort: local businesses, private land owners, public land users, city-dwellers, suburban families, and rural communities. I am delighted to share my deep passion and experience with our over 600 million acres of public lands--lands owned by all Americans.

There is no better way to appreciate the great outdoors than by visiting our diverse public lands. Along with providing a canvas for spectacular views, wild areas allow hundreds of millions of people every year to enjoy their favorite recreation activities - such as hunting, bird watching, hiking, photography, bike riding and picnicking with friends and family. Not only do America's wild lands sustain our communities, but they also provide a cultural and historical connection to who we are, and where we've been.

The Wilderness Society is asking the Obama administration to enrich America's Great Outdoors by looking at our wild lands for long-term benefits. We have offered the Administration constructive and positive recommendations when designing and carrying-out the initiative's vision:

As I said yesterday in the Washington Post:

"America's public lands serve as a smart 21st-century investment, because on top of all the benefits they already provide, they can sustain our communities into the future by anchoring local economies."

It is important that the Administration focus on large areas that have core wild land components - the very lands that provide our pure drinking water and healthy wildlife habitat. The administration should also utilize and empower local stakeholders - such as recreationists and businesses, hunting and angling groups, ranchers and landowners - to lead on restoration and conservation efforts, and work to identify and implement opportunities on our public lands that spur economic growth and enhance the ability of species to adapt to climate change. Finally, the Obama administration should maximize interagency and intergovernmental cooperation to manage our wild areas, and seek opportunities for protecting our public land values through conservation designations, such as national parks, national monuments and wilderness.

In order to accomplish this, The Wilderness Society offered to the Administration examples of wild areas [use link for a detailed description or see below for a list] where the shared goals of America's Great Outdoors can be successfully implemented.

We should strive to leave the next generation healthier and better connected to the natural world. The more time we spend on our public lands, the more inspired we will be to help preserve invaluable wild lands so that our kids will be able to enjoy our wilderness for generations to come.

Areas in which the goals of America's Great Outdoors can be implemented

  • The Crown of the Continent (Montana) provides one of the most promising opportunities for landscape-level conservation in the West, and is ripe for conservation history to be made with forest restoration complementing climate adaptation strategies, private lands conservation, land acquisition and wild lands protection.
  • America’s Arctic helps regulate global temperatures with its polar ice caps and diverse ecosystem. A public, private and interagency coordinated effort on this landscape can help us better understand the effects of climate change.
  • Otero Mesa (New Mexico) is the largest and wildest Chihuahuan Desert grassland left on public lands in the U.S. It contains New Mexico’s largest fresh water aquifer and is home to invaluable cultural and historical resources that connect us to our history.
  • Berryessa Snow Mountain Region (California) is a myriad of public (Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management) and private lands that converge less than 100 miles from the San Francisco Bay area. There is great potential for promoting interagency coordination, coupled with private land protection to assure comprehensive stewardship of the area’s natural and recreation opportunities.
  • The Central Idaho Landscape is exemplifying cooperative efforts between the Forest Service, private timber companies, and local citizens charting a strategy that encompasses wilderness, sustainable recreation, forest management, and economic development for local communities.
  • The Upper Sonoran Desert (Arizona) is one of the most biologically diverse deserts in the world, with rich wildlife and renewable energy potential. There are opportunities to boost resilience and preservation of conservation lands, while also allowing for development of renewable energy to meet the energy demands of the growing area.
  • The Mahoosuc Region (Maine and New Hampshire) attracts visitors and provides a strong pillar for diverse local economies with its scenic beauty, pure drinking water, forest resources, rich wildlife habitat and outstanding recreational opportunities.
  • The Greater Dinosaur Region (Northwest Colorado, Northeast Utah, Southern Wyoming) contains an exceptionally high concentration of cultural resources and is a recreation mecca; hunting, fishing, rafting, and other outdoor recreation activities bring in approximately $104 million yearly in northwest Colorado alone. There are important and immediate opportunities to utilize existing authorities and resources to protect these irreplaceable resources.
  • Northern Prairie (Montana) could represent a 21st century success in one of the last great prairie landscapes left in the West - with strategic acquisition, consolidation and enhanced administrative and permanent protections. Coordination across federal lands and private lands can lay the foundation for true landscape-scale grassland conservation.
  • The Heart of the Southern Blue Ridge (North Carolina & Tennessee) with millions of acres of National Forest, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, state parks, and other protected working forests and farmlands, this region, homeland of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, represents some of the most spectacular biological diversity and cultural heritage in the eastern United States. There is a substantial federal and state land base in the region, and a strong movement to protect remaining forest and farmland among local land trusts and county governments.
  • The North Cascades (Washington State) is home to more glaciers than any other region in the lower 48, providing clean, clear drinking water for communities and agriculture. There are important opportunities to transcend a wide variety of political and governmental boundaries and coordinate between tribal, local, state, federal, and international entities to ensure that the vitality of the North Cascades remains for future generations to experience and enjoy.


A version of this article also appeared in Huffington Post.