WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says a new administration effort to protect public lands will put people back to work in tourism and recreation and help Americans stay healthier by encouraging outdoor activities.
The initiative largely incorporates existing programs under a new name, "America's Great Outdoors." Still, it aims to double federal spending on land and water conservation to $900 million. The money would be used to buy private land for public use and provide grants to states.
Obama said it is important to conserve public lands, even in tough economic times, and that the new program will encourage more Americans to enjoy the outdoors.
"These are the right steps to take for our environment. But they're also the right steps to take for our country," Obama said Wednesday at a White House ceremony.
The White House declined to release a price tag for the outdoors initiative, but said much of the spending will be blended into existing programs run by the Interior and Agriculture departments and the Environmental Protection Agency. The program also encompasses the White House Council on Environmental Quality and other federal agencies.
The Interior Department, which has the largest share of the program, set aside $5.5 billion for the outdoors program in its budget proposal for the next fiscal year. Most of that money, $4.6 billion, is for operations for three agencies – the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service – and does not represent new spending.
The program goes beyond conservation to raise Americans' awareness of the outdoors and the importance of nature, especially among children, Obama said, noting that the program shares some of the goals of a fitness initiative by first lady Michelle Obama. A report released Wednesday by the White House cites studies showing that access to the outdoors can help reverse the obesity epidemic that has tripled among America's youth.
"These days, our lives are only getting more complicated, more busy, and we're glued to our phones and our computers for hours on end," the president said. "Michelle and I, we're constantly having to monitor our kids: 'Get outside. Turn off the TV. Put away the Skype.'"
At such times, Obama added, "We have to ask ourselves: What can we do to break free from the routine and reconnect with the world around us? What can we do to get our kids off the couch and out the door?"
Environmental groups hailed the outdoors program.
"It is foolish in a time of belt tightening to neglect our forests and rivers that supply us with clean air and water for free," said William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society. "'America's Great Outdoors' will ensure that families have places and opportunities to fish, picnic, and take vacations now and forever."
But some Western lawmakers said it could force urban ideas about land conservation onto rural residents.
"The word `conservation' should not be wielded as a broad, overriding excuse to restrict or prohibit Americans' access to their public lands for pleasure, sport, jobs or better quality of life," said Rep. Doc Hastings. R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Hastings said he would oppose efforts to restrict farming, ranching or timber production in the name of conservation.
Obama disputed the idea that conserving land was a luxury at a time of trillion-dollar budget deficits. President Abraham Lincoln set aside land for Yosemite National Park during the Civil War, and Franklin D. Roosevelt helped protect landmarks that included Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty during the Great Depression, he said.
Online: America's Great Outdoors site: http://americasgreatoutdoors.gov/