Obama touts economic strength of outdoor recreation at DC conference, kicks off national ‘town hall’ meetings

As President Barack Obama strengthens his support of the outdoors, a national schedule of town hall-style public meetings are being launched to let anybody and everybody have their say for a coming report: Will you be a part of the conversation?
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More than 100 years after Theodore Roosevelt held the first White House conference on conservation, President Barack Obama spoke before a group of 500 outdoor advocates at the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors, saying, “We understand that conservation is not contrary to economic growth, it is an integral part of economic growth.”

Obama signed a presidential memorandum establishing an initiative to create a new 21st century strategy for the outdoors. The strategy will include a national schedule of town hall-style public meetings being called “listening sessions,” the results of which will culminate in a report focused on reconnecting Americans to the outdoors.

The White House conference in April, which included delegates from the conservation, ranching, sporting, recreation, forestry and local parks communities, also included outdoor industry executives from Coleman, Eastern Mountain Sports, The North Face, REI and the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).

“It was refreshing to hear a president speak about our issues,” Frank Hugelmeyer, president of OIA, told SNEWS®. “We are being handed a unique opportunity right now that we should all rise to, and we definitely plan to do that.”

A 21st century strategy

The federal government is looking to groups across the country to be partners in developing a conservation initiative for the 21st century, and is bolstering interagency coordination among its own ranks. Among the big guns involved are the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and Council on Environmental Quality. (Click here to read the White House press release.)

“The initiative to integrate on an interagency level is unusual and precedence setting. (Obama) has challenged both public and private sectors at the state and private and the industry level to come up with solutions,” Will Manzer, CEO of Eastern Mountain Sports, told SNEWS.

Among the goals of the initiative are:

>> promoting community-based recreation and conservation

>> advancing job and volunteer opportunities in conservation and outdoor recreation

>> conserving land, water, wildlife, historic and cultural resources, and determining how the government can “best advance those priorities through public private partnerships and locally supported conservation strategies”

Conference attendees noted that a major theme within the administration was connecting people to the outdoors and the inclusion of urban quarters in the outdoor scheme.

“Particularly important, is the focus on fostering a new generation of community and urban parks that could benefit the 80 percent of the U.S. population that live in urban areas,” Sam Solomon, CEO of Coleman, told SNEWS.

Also, the administration is embracing the concept that outdoor recreation pursuits generate jobs and revenues.

“The administration has heard our message that the outdoors industry makes a big economic impact while championing the protection of our natural places,” said Dan Templin, vice president and CFO of VF Outdoor, which includes The North Face. “The industry now has a seat at the table to work with the administration to protect public lands and promote outdoor activities.”

Hugelmeyer said, “The (industry’s) messages of connecting more people to the outdoors and that recreation is a vital economic driver in the United States have finally reached the White House.”

REI CEO Sally Jewell served on a conference panel titled, “Connecting people to our lands, water and wildlife,” and spoke about the economic strength of the outdoor community and the $730 billion that outdoor recreation contributes to the U.S. economy.

“Listening sessions”

To help create a public record, the participating government agencies are gathering information through a series of so-called listening and learning sessions around the country, much like public meetings town hall-style to give interested parties in different parts of the country a chance to speak their minds. Testimony compiled from these meetings will be included in the Report on America’s Great Outdoors that the Council on Environmental Quality will submit to Obama on Nov. 15. (Click here for the America’s Great Outdoors website.)

The administration is promoting a grassroots level of participation from all types of conservation and recreation groups, among other things, to learn, about innovative programs and to hear what Americans want for the outdoors.

There is also a call-to-action to bring young Americans into the conversation, and the Outdoor Nation event, being held in June in New York City, is a proposed listening session site.

REI, The North Face, Coleman and Eastern Mountain Sports have offered facilities to host meetings, and companies and retailers of any size can coordinate a listening session in their communities.

OIA is helping to coordinate a schedule of events with the Department of the Interior. Once an agenda is established, OIA (www.outdoorindustry.org) will publish the details and send alerts on session locations.

“It’s our responsibility right now to populate these listening sessions and not only make sure we attend and speak up but that we make sure that everyone knows about them,” Hugelmeyer said. “With our extensive network, our industry is viewed as one of their most viable partners of making that happen.”

He added that OIA is working on making Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010 in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of the listening session sites.

“We need to be certain that we help showcase these efforts,” Coleman’s Solomon said.

Budget realities

While the outdoor community is being given a platform to potentially create public policy, the realities of a struggling economy and an over-burdened budget still exist. Industry advocates are pushing for participation to make sure all Americans who voice a concern for the outdoors resonate with Washington.

“We have to put some reality lenses on. We have to bring something to the party that will move the financial meter here,” Hugelmeyer said.

Manzer of Eastern Mountain Sports said, “We’re not going to get anywhere in this budget climate if we’re not extremely activist in this process. We’ve got to participate.

“We can’t expect the president in this budget climate to do it alone. We can’t expect Washington to do it. We’ve got to do it ourselves.”

To learn more about coordinating a listening session in your community, contact Craig Mackey, OIA’s director of government affairs, at cmackey@outdoorindustry.org.

--Wendy Geister

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