The Great Outdoors Gets a Presidential Boost

President Obama today put his signature on a Presidential Memorandum and with that stroke of the pen launched America's Great Outdoors Initiative. Its goal is to bring communities together and take the environmental discussion out of Washington.

With a nod to a predecessor who first launched the White House Conference on America's Great Outdoors 100 years ago, Obama said that while he knows he could never match the legacy of President Teddy Roosevelt, he would certainly try to continue the former conservation president's efforts.

"I will probably never shoot a bear. That's a fair bet there, a fair guess," Obama joked today. "But I do intend to enrich that legacy, and I feel an abiding bond with the land that is the United States of America."

Speaking before an audience of leaders from the conservation, farming, ranching, sporting, forestry and parks communities at the Department of the Interior, Obama said that the nation needed to develop a new strategy to protect its natural resources in the 21st century.

The nation, Obama said, faces new challenges, such as population growth and climate change, which place a growing strain on wildlife, water and land.

But the administration's No. 1 goal, he said, is to bring more voices to the table.

"We're talking about how we can collect best ideas on conservation; how we can pursue good ideas that local communities embrace; and how we can be more responsible stewards of tax dollars to promote conservation."

More Community Say in the Environment

The presidential initiative directs members of the administration to host regional listening sessions across the United States, beginning in the next few months. The first meetings are scheduled for Los Angeles, and for the northern Everglades in Florida.

"We'll meet with everybody -- from tribal leaders to farmers, from young people to businesspeople, from elected officials to recreation and conservation groups," Obama said. "And their ideas will help us form a 21st century strategy for America's great outdoors to better protect our natural landscape and our history for generations to come."

The Writing of a 'New Chapter'

Obama outlined several areas where changes would be made in the way nation approaches its natural resources.

He called for the writing of a "new chapter" in protecting rivers, wildlife habitats, historic sites and the great landscapes of the country. He emphasized working together on conservation efforts spearheaded by local and state governments, tribes and private groups.

He said the administration would help farmers, ranchers and property owners who want to preserve their land for their children and grandchildren.

Borrowing a chapter from the first lady's Let's Move initiative, Obama also promised ways to encourage families to hike and bike and spend more time outdoors, calling for a "new generation of community and urban parks" so that children would have an opportunity to discover the great outdoors, even if they lived in a city.

"Just as we cherish our childhood memories of hiking and sledding, fishing and camping, and just as we enjoy spending time outdoors with our families, we must guard these places and traditions for new generations," said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality.

The Great Outdoors Initiative a Boost to the Economy

Obama said that preserving the nation's natural resources was not only "the right thing to do," but that the Great Outdoors initiative, which will be run by the Environmental Protection Agency, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture, brings another benefit: jobs.

"It's how we're going to spur job creation in the tourism industry and the recreation industry. It's how we'll create jobs preserving and maintaining our forests, our rivers, our great outdoors," Obama said.

The president said that while some might question the timing of this conservation investment -- given the country's involvement in two wars and the current financial crisis -- he said it cannot be put off.

"Even in times of crisis, we're called to take the long view to preserve our national heritage, because in doing so we fulfill one of the responsibilities that falls to all of us as Americans, and as inhabitants of this same small planet. And that is the responsibility that we are rising to meet today."

Reaction From Environmental Groups

There was a consensus among environmental advocates that the administration was taking a step in the right direction.

Leslie Jones, general counsel at the Wilderness Society, applauded the Obama administration's efforts as "conservation for the next century.

"I think they have laid out a very bold vision for this initiative," she said. "We couldn't agree more."

Patrick Fitzgerald, director of education advocacy at the National Wildlife Federation, said the America's Great Outdoors initiative is important in promoting childhood play.

"Kids today aren't spending time outdoors playing like they used to … and it's becoming a big impact on children's health," he said, citing a Kaiser Family Foundation study, which found that children spend less than seven minutes outdoors per day, outside of organized youth sports. "We were shocked to learn it was even possible."