Land of Many Uses: The New Participatory Politics of American Conservation

Having achieved historic action with the healthcare bill passed last month, the Obama administration wasted no time re-focusing on new priorities. Last Friday, April 16th, leading conservationists, environmental groups, outdoor recreation advocacy organizations and industry representatives were invited to Washington DC, for the White House Conservation Conference. During the event, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing America's Great Outdoors Initiative, a national effort to "promote and support innovative community-level efforts to conserve outdoor spaces and to reconnect Americans to the outdoors".

For all its fanfare, the event did not mark any immediate shifts in policy, but rather the beginning of a dialogue. In what has become a hallmark of the Obama presidency, the commander-and-chief said that his first goal was to listen: "We're not talking about a big federal agenda being driven out of Washington. We're talking about how we can collect best ideas on conservation... we're going to build on successful efforts being spearheaded outside of Washington". Sitting in the diverse audience were not only the expected players like the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, but also representatives from the ranching and timber industries, the National Rifle Association, urban green-space initiatives, and a host of smaller advocacy groups that are typically left out of the Washington policy-making bubble.

As a committed rock and alpine climber, I was surprised to learn that even my own modest constituency had a voice: our man was Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund. Compared to the Sierra Club (membership: 1.3 million; annual budget: $44.6 million) the Access Fund is a small organization, with 10,000 members and an annual budget of roughly one million dollars - making it just the kind of grass-roots organization Obama seemed to be appealing to for fresh ideas. Yesterday, I got Brady on the phone for his take on the meeting.

"It was organized on extremely short notice," Brady told me, "The press releases went out on March 26th, and invites went out around April 1st. For the Access Fund it was an honor to be included. It's a sign of the times that human powered recreation is being taken seriously, that conservation and recreation go hand and hand." In fact, the Access Fund's presence was thanks in part to a policy strategy it adopted four years ago, when it co-founded the Outdoor Alliance, a policy-advocacy group formed with the American Canoe Association, American Hiking Society, American Whitewater, International Mountain Bicycling Association, and Winter Wildlands Alliance.

"For a longtime, human powered outdoor recreation groups weren't very organized - undermining our own efforts," Brady explained, noting that motorized, equestrian, and hunting/fishing communities have been well represented for years. "With the Outdoor Alliance, we've worked out a joint policy platform and have a constant presence in Washington. Each organization may be relatively small, but if you take a look at who participates in our respective activities, we represent the recreational interests of 1 in 3 Americans. By combining our efforts, we have a lot more traction."

So, with the President appealing for advice from those on the front-lines of conservation, what did Brady propose? The conference, he was quick to note, was more of a rallying-call and networking opportunity than a serious policy workshop. However, in smaller breakout sessions after the main event, each representative was given a minute and a half to speak. "Like others, I spoke of the need for full-funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and also more emphasis on low-impact recreation from the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Unfortunately, we frequently find that the talk coming from Washington doesn't always match the management practices on the ground. A lot of their time goes into resource extraction and other obligations versus consistent recreational land management."

What direction the conservation movement will take in the twenty-first century is still to be determined, though opinions are already being voiced. Carl Pope, Chairman of the Sierra Club wrote of healing the divide between rural conservationists - farmers, hunters, and anglers - and urban environmentalists. Others noted that Obama, the first president in more than a generation to come from a truly urban home, would likely make green efforts in cities and close to large population centers a focus of the initiative.

And Brady spoke of money: "The budgetary crunch is obviously a huge issue right now, so it would be a mistake to expect a big influx of funding right away. But for me, the take away point was that the administration thinks conservation and access to outdoor recreation for all Americans is important. They want climbers and the human powered outdoor recreation community to be represented. We have a place at the table, and the ability to help set the agenda."