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Friday Seriousness: Obama and the Great Outdoors Initiative 16 April 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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Is earth week next week? Google says yes, and I guess that’s why President Obama came out today to tell Americans about the Great Outdoors Initiative, which will do… something. As best I can recall, The Sierra Club showed up to laud the move and my former employer, well, actually, blew it off, but perhaps with good reason: the initiative doesn’t initiate anything. It hopes. Case in point:

The president said the “America’s Great Outdoors” program will involve a series of listening sessions throughout the nation to solicit an array of ideas.

Yes, an array of ideas. That’s about as vague “variety of issues” on my resume, and it marks a return to the aspiration game, which seems to hope that since we won’t be going to moon anytime soon, we might as well gaze at America’s wild-ish navel instead. Aren’t there weekly radio addresses for the stuff no one needs to know, though? Did America really need a special meeting to hear that it was getting a little homely, that maybe it should try getting out every once and while to work on its tan, take a stroll in the woods, leave a Snickers wrapper at a scenic overlook? Well, maybe.

Yes, National Park attendance has not grown in step with the economy, and more Americans visited in 1987 than have in any other year since then despite our swelling population. But to use the presidential pulpit to urge Americans to reconnect with the outdoors smacks of desperation. Curious since we’ve made no attempt to hide our flirtations with televisions and theme parks and European vacations over the last two decades. Why the hope for reconnection now? With more wilderness than ever, with conservation-friendly bureaucrats in office, why the sudden rush to support the American outdoors?

Over at the Times’s DotEarth blog, Andy Revkin might have the answer: our urban president. George W wandered around Crawford wounding trees with a bow saw in the name of fire mitigation. Cheney hunted quail and friends. Clinton whitewater rafted. Al Gore’s still afraid of ManBearPig. And George H.W., even if he didn’t like broccoli, at least retired to the Maine coast now and then. On the other hand, urbanite Obama, not so big on the Bass Pro scene despite his academic predilections for conservation.

I don’t think, however, that the great outdoors initiative is an effort to make up for lost opportunities or for the fact that Obama’s never wrestled a grizzly with his bare hands. Rather, it’s an offer from an urban American to urban Americans reminding them that Colorado exists, that so much space lies between I-5 and I-95. Really. And, yes, that may sound like aspirational gibberish to folks who make it into the woods every once and a while. Maybe it is.

But recall that the urban poor voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers. And recall that there are a lot of urban poor. They registered because he appeared on the ticket. Regardless of what you make as the reason why, consider that these are folks who rarely if ever see opportunities to vacation in national parks. It is they who need the hope of a wild America the most, and more pragmatically, it is the conservation crowd that needs more voters interested in environmental issues. Ignore the hope-y language  and instead focus on the stated problem and implied “ask” here:

Despite our conservation efforts, too many of our fields are becoming fragmented, too many of our rivers and streams are becoming polluted, and we are losing our connection to the parks, wild places, and open spaces we grew up with and cherish. Children, especially, are spending less time outside running and playing, fishing and hunting, and connecting to the outdoors just down the street or outside of town.

If Obama can offer the hope of America’s natural bounty to those who might never have made use of it, he can also recruit supporters to protect that bounty. And in this case, I bet winning environmental consideration from voters who already hang on your every word will prove far easier than swaying a hardened and skeptical suburban electorate. When more Americans connect with the outdoors, more Americans vote for the outdoors. Shrewd move. And yeah, it’s cool if the city folks get end up getting muddy a little more often, too.



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