About 100 people gathered on Harriet Island in Saint Paul, Minn., June 5 to kick off the first "Get Fit with US" event, a program developed by a bevy of federal agencies as well as outdoor industry leaders to promote the connection between public health and public parks.
Among the 14 speakers representing various government entities were Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Saint Paul Mayor Randy Kelly.
Norton used the event to emphasize the "vital connection between public lands and public health." She said in order for the nation's young people to get and stay fit they need to associate physical exercise with recreation, because the latter is fun. Norton also announced the designation of 27 new recreation trails in 15 states (www.americantrails.org/nationalrecreationtrails).
The Get Fit event coincided with National Trails Day and was sponsored by the Outdoor Industry Foundation (OIF), the non-profit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). The event included a 10,000-step walk, raptor release, volunteer trail projects and an outdoor activity fair. In addition, about a dozen vendor booths providing maps, hiking and gear information were set up in the registration tent. Although promoted as a public event and offering activities for many interests, it was more about bringing together federal agencies and outdoor leaders to kick-off the awareness efforts. OIA will announce at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show whether there will be more events similar to Get Fit with US or what the association's and foundation's next steps will be.
According to Frank Hugelmeyer, president of OIA, making outdoor recreation America's top activity is the association's No. 1 initiative. He said research shows that in states where use of open spaces is greatest, obesity rates are the lowest.
Despite the low turnout (insiders say there were nearly more bigwigs than public attendees and no more than 100 total attendees the entire day), Hugelmeyer told SNEWSÂ® he deemed the event a success. "Bringing all these agencies together in one place is unprecedented in the history of our industry," he said.
"The OIA is providing a solution to federal agencies. We are sending a clear message to DC audiences -- federal department leaders of land and water agencies -- that we can work together to gain increased use of public lands," he said. "The head of every major land and water agency is here recognizing the OIA. It's a chance for us to talk one-on-one with Secretary Norton, Director Mainella and Major Gen. Strock (head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)."
Hugelmeyer stressed that the OIA "can't affect change without engagement" and establishing strong relationships with these federal agency heads will move OIA initiatives forward. "It's a very important step in our consumer outreach campaign to increase the number of Americans getting outdoors. To reach our goal, we need to use the inventory of public lands."
Others viewed the Get Fit with US event as more of a political rally. Speeches lasted nearly 90 minutes with Mayor Kelly as the lone representative of the Democratic party. The political undertones were seen by the appearance of a Sierra Club-sponsored counter event across the Mississippi River in Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. At that event, 100 participants walked backward to protest President Bush's policies on the environment.
Hugelmeyer himself said he recognized that part of the reason Minnesota was chosen as the site for the kick-off event was because Minnesota is a swing state in the upcoming election: "It's why DC and partners are here."
Politics aside, the majority of Get Fit with US volunteers and participants with whom SNEWSÂ® talked said they enjoyed the event and told us they think it is important to highlight the connection between getting outdoors and staying fit.
"The whole point is to get people out and get them more fit. We're seeing a diverse group of people here today: families, teens, seniors. Some people need motivation to change. Hopefully, Get Fit with US provides that," said Steve Benoit, an event volunteer and board member of the Minneapolis Recreation and Park Association.
Nancy Struthers, a St. Paul family physician who attended with her husband and two young children, told SNEWSÂ® she was sorry the event hadn't been better publicized: "We like to do things in the park as a family, and events like this encourage people to get outside."
Emmett Mullin of Minneapolis came to Get Fit with US with his daughter and was pleased to see the support for getting kids outside and having exercise be the side benefit. "This is a great issue that impacts our future," Mullin stressed. "Dealing with obesity as a society will be a long and challenging process. We are really at the doorstep of the issue." Mullin also commented it was too bad the event wasn't better attended.
"All the agency heads and folks from the outdoor industry were here," Mullin said, "everyone but the people."