An Urban President Hails America’s Great Outdoors

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This afternoon, President Obama took time out of what has already become a bruising budget battle to announce the release of a new report on America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. It’s a program the White House launched last year to preserve parks and open space across the country. (Access the report, which gathered the opinion of more than 100,000 Americans on outdoor spaces, here.) As part of the initiative, Obama said that the government would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a trust first established in 1965 to provide money for national parks, forests and wildlife areas. That money, the President said, would come from existing oil and gas leasing revenues:

Our attitude is if you take something out of the Earth, you have a responsibility to give a little bit back to the Earth

Environmental groups hailed the initiative and the survey that led to it, which put a little bit of attention towards an issue that rarely gets much press. As Lasha Brown, a member of the Friends of Ironwood Forest National Monument in Arizona, said in a statement:

I thank the President for giving all American’s the opportunity to voice their opinion about the future of our public lands. There is a limited window of opportunity to protect our nations wide open spaces and history and I am encouraged that President Obama is looking out for our kids and grandkids.

Of course, in these days of divided government, just because the President says he wants a program to be funded doesn’t mean that Congress will hand over the money. (In fact, the President’s approval of something usually guarantees that Republicans will be against it.) For decades, Congress has taken the money that was meant for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and spent it somewhere else. With Republicans already calling out the White House for what they say is a bias against fossil fuels in favor of renewable power, it’s going to be an uphill budget battle to get more money from oil and gas—even for conservation. (Nor is it only Republicans—Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the queen of offshore drilling, has joined a Senate hold on Obama’s nominee for the Fish and Wildlife Service, refusing to budge until the White House speeds permits for deepwater oil and gas exploration.)

But those will be battles for another day…and weeks, and months. I wanted to reflect on Obama’s rhetoric, and on the President’s own relationship to the outdoors, and how it mirrors significant changes in the country he leads. As Obama pointed out in his speech, while wilderness was once everywhere in America, as we expanded across the country we pushed back nature in a little more than a century:

Cities sprang up along riverbanks and railroad tracks. The nation grew so fast that by 1890, the census director announced that he could no longer identify an American “frontier.”  And yet, in the midst of so much expansion, so much growth, so much progress, there were a few individuals who had the foresight to protect our most precious national treasures -– even in our most trying times.

Obama tried to make the case that wilderness—and conservation—is in our blood. Republican Abraham Lincoln set aside 60 million acres of the Yosemite Valley in California, and Teddy Roosevelt—also a Republican—essentially created the parks system through an act of will. His Democratic cousin FDR, even during the teeth of the Great Depression, enabled the National Parks Service to protect landmarks like Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty:

It embodies that uniquely American idea that each of us has an equal share in the land around us, and an equal responsibility to protect it.

And it’s not just the iconic mountains and parks that we protect.  It’s the forests where generations of families have hiked and picnicked and connected with nature.  It’s the park down the street where kids play after school.  It’s the farmland that’s been in the family longer than anybody can remember.  It’s the rivers where we fish, it’s the forests where we hunt.

What’s interesting to me is that Obama—and I’d venture to say, many of his supporters—is no outdoorsman. The President spent much of childhood and adolescence in Hawaii, and we know he likes to bodysurf, but as an adult he’s lived in cities, in New York and Boston and Chicago. He didn’t hunt or fish or, I’m guessing, clear brush—something our last President rather enjoyed. Obama is our first urban President since Manhattanite Chester Arthur, who assumed the Presidency when James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. (If you forget who Arthur was, well, you didn’t miss much.)

Yet Obama is still probably our greenest President ever—at least by policy—far more so than George W. Bush, even if Bush was the one who liked to hang out at his Texas ranch. Environmentalism has changed—today young city dwellers whose only experience with nature comes in an urban park will often support progressive climate policy and endangered species, while conservatives who hunt and fish in those great outdoors regularly aren’t likely to be voting with the Sierra Club party line. I saw that for myself when I spent time in coastal Louisiana during the oil spill—guys who would work regularly on drilling rigs would spend their off weeks fishing in the very Gulf that was being polluted by BP’s blown well. And they didn’t see any contradiction in that—and they weren’t fans of the President.

To some degree, this is just another mark of the country’s growing political polarization—even something that was once as nonpartisan as conservation is now just another legislative football. But we’re changing as well, as we grow in numbers, as our cities and exurbs swell. What Thomas Jefferson called the “workhorse of nature” is vanishing fast—if not from climate change, then just from development and population growth. Like our urban President—who noted in his speech the irony of holding the Great Outdoors event inside in the White House—we’re divorced from nature in our daily lives in a way our ancestors weren’t. But we still have a duty to protect that dwindling wilderness, as Obama said:

The great Rachel Carson once wrote that “The real wealth of the nation lies in the resources of the Earth -— soil, water, forests, minerals, wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”  Something more than politics.  That was the call echoed by Jefferson and Lincoln and Roosevelt.  It’s the call that has driven generations of Americans to do their part to protect a small slice of the planet.  And it’s the call that we answer today.

It’s probably too much to ask for, but it really is the least we can do.