ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, April 6, 2011) -- President Obama's "America's Great Outdoors Initiative," announced a year ago, sought to reinvigorate conservation and connect Americans, especially young people, with the lands and waters that are used for farming and ranching, hunting and fishing, and for families to spend quality time together.

But how do you connect people to something many don't know exists, or if they know, can't participate in'

"With children spending half as much time outside as their parents did, and with many Americans living in urban areas without safe access to green space, connecting to the outdoors is more important than ever for the economic and physical health of our communities," Nancy Sutley said in the Feb. 16, 2011 report to Obama on the initiative's first year. She is chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"Through the initiative, this administration will work together with communities to ensure clean and accessible lands and waters, thriving outdoor cultures and economies, and healthy and active youth," Sutley said in the report.

Last summer, senior administration officials from the Departments of Labor, Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, the President's Council on Environmental Quality, historical groups and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration held 51 listening sessions across the country to gather input from Americans about the outdoor places and activities that they value most.

"I was able to go to a couple of those sessions -- one in St. Louis and one in Los Angeles -- and we had people from the community, as well as young people, who let us know some of the challenges or limitations that they're finding in their ability to engage with the great outdoors, as well as take advantage of all of the things that our country has to offer," Darcy said.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works), provides supervision of all aspects of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers' Civil Works program, including conservation and development of the nation's water and wetland resources, flood control, navigation, and shore protection.

Young people, she said, whether they're at schools on Army installations or outside the gates, didn't know how close the parks were, where the national parks were, and also how they could get there.

"The objective of this report was to take what we heard and try to figure out ways that we could better connect people with America's Great Outdoors and a big part of it is education. We need to let people know what's out there and what's available to them, and the opportunity that it presents, not only for their enjoyment but also for their health (and future employment)," Darcy said.

In order to promote President Obama's initiative, Darcy and leaders of the Army Corps of Engineers helped kick off a project to restore the Heeia Wetland, adjacent to Kaneohe Bay on Oahu, Hawaii.

The project aimed to restore fallow lands in the Heeia Ahupuaa (native Hawaiian watershed) into a working agricultural taro loi (taro pond) and restore the native wetland. Local community members from diverse organizations were engaged in the project.

The kickoff event was hosted by the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, known as TNC; the University of Hawaii, Institute of Marine Biology; and the Kako'o Oiwi community group.

"Our goal is to heal the people and heal the land," said Bootsie Howard, community coordinator for Kako'o Oiwi, as if summing up Obama's initiative.

"A lot of people don't realize that our mission is flight control, navigation, and aquatic ecosystem restoration, but in building a dam or creating a reservoir, you're also creating a recreational opportunity as well," Darcy said.

"You may be surprised that we have more recreational visitor days than any other agency in the federal government. Annually, 357 million visitors come to USACE. That's more than the U.S. National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service," she said.

One of the reasons for so many visitor days, Darcy said, is because about 90 percent of the Army Corps of Engineers lakes are within 50 miles of a metropolitan area. So, more people have close and easy access.

"We're kind of in their backyard," she said.

"We also want to expose people in urban areas to what's near them. Here in Washington, DC, we have one of the largest parks, Rock Creek Park," Darcy said. The park contains a wild forest that houses picnic areas, winding trails and bike paths, a nature center, a public golf course, tennis courts and stables.

For the Army family, with the added stress of moving every few years to another garrison or the possibility of deployment, half of the installations in the United States are within 59 miles of an Army Corps of Engineer lake, she added.

Whenever she's visiting one of her Army Corps of Engineers districts, Darcy tries to combine her visits with outreach to people in the community or a nearby Army facility.

"Currently, we're working with the arsenal/garrison MWR programs to provide a free campsite with campers to set up on site for active military families.

"In northwest Kansas City, the corps is partnering with Fort Riley's MWR program to provide some lake-based recreation and watercraft rentals and picnicking for families. It's having a great reception there but we need to do more," Darcy said.

Conservation, restoration, and recreation also offer quality job and service opportunities, spurring economic growth for local communities, regions, and the nation.

"The Army Corps of Engineers, whenever we're doing a project -- whether it's building a dam, flood control or ecosystem restoration -- we have to go through an analysis to see what kind of land we're dealing with and whether there are any archaeological or historical artifacts there that we need to retain for the future. And we find all kinds of things, no matter where we are," Darcy said.

To help catalogue archives and the archaeological trinkets found, the Army Corps of Engineers instituted a Wounded Warriors Program to train returning Soldiers in skills they can use now and to find work, later.

"We've opened three centers around the country -- one in Washington, DC, one in St. Louis and one in Augusta, Ga. -- where we've trained wounded warriors to do our cataloguing, run curatorial techniques, and photography. We've had several graduations from the program and they've gone on to get jobs in various fields," Darcy said, adding that the budget

With his 21st century strategy for America's great outdoors, President Obama seeks to preserve "the places that offer us refuge from daily demands, renew our spirits, and enhance our fondest memories, whether they are fishing with a grandchild in a favorite spot, hiking a trail with a friend, or enjoying a family picnic in a neighborhood park," said a White House release on April 16, 2010.

The 2010 listening sessions drew more than 10,000 participants and more than 105,000 written comments, shaping an action plan based on local initiatives and support, which when implemented will result in:

-- Accessible parks or green spaces for our children.
-- A new generation of great urban parks and community green spaces.
-- Newly-restored river restorations and recreational "blueways" that power economic revitalization in communities.
-- Stronger support for farmers, ranchers, and private landowners that help protect rural landscapes and provide access for recreation.
-- The reinvestment of revenues from oil and gas extraction into the permanent protection
of parks, open spaces, wildlife habitat, and access for recreational activities.
-- A 21st century conservation ethic that builds on local ideas and solutions for environmental stewardship and connecting to our historic, cultural, and natural heritage.

For more information on the Army Corps of Engineers recreation, visit http://www.usace.army.mil/CECW/Operations/Pages/Recreation.aspx

"Wherever you are, you put in your locality and your zip code and it will tell you whatever recreational facility is within your area...whether it's a lake or hiking trail or bike trail or a campsite ...we're trying to promote that as part of this America's Great Outdoors initiative," Darcy said.

For more information about America's Great Outdoors, visit: www.americasgreatoutdoors.gov

Page last updated Wed April 6th, 2011 at 14:49