06/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Quite a Family Reunion

A little more than a century ago, in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt created the modern conservation movement by convening the nation's governors, resource managers, and experts (both public and private) for the first White House Conference on Conservation. The conference summoned a broad array of Americans to solve what President Roosevelt called "the weightiest problem now before the Nation... the question of the conservation and use of the great fundamental sources of wealth of this Nation..."

President Obama and his Cabinet's environmental team -- Interior Secretary Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Council on Environmental Quality Chief Nancy Sutley -- called his administration's first White House conservation conference for a very different purpose -- as a family reunion of the once unified conservation movement that Roosevelt began.

For that reason, it was not so much what was said at the White House Conference on the Great Outdoors that mattered -- it was who was in the room and speaking to one another. In that sense, this was a classic Obama initiative -- an exercise in bridge-building and in bringing together Americans who share common values but different perspectives: federal, state, and local; urban and rural; eastern, western, and southern.

President Obama's appearance was the highlight -- the signal that land issues matter to this administration and that he's seeking new directions and opportunities to use the powers of the Executive Branch in the great cause of land protection, preservation, and restoration. His remarks broke no bold new ground, but he made it clear that this conference, like Roosevelt's, was intended to mark a beginning, not a climax.

Throughout  the day, a recurring theme was that young Americans of this generation are spending only half as much time in the outdoors as their parents did -- and that this poses a fundamental threat to our national character as well as to the land itself. We heard this warning from farmers, from federal land managers, from land-trust stewards, and from grassroots urban environmentalists.

Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, said that his city is virtually walled-off from its natural surroundings (it's true -- you can actually see it on Google maps) and described how losing that connection has fragmented his city's social fabric. He explained how under his leadership Newark has torn down walls, turned dumps into parks, and started programs to take city residents to experience New Jersey's Pinelands: "Getting kids into nature is part of waking kids up, giving them a greater sense of themselves."

Mayor Booker described the power of local farming and of urban gardening as he lamented that some urban students do not even know what a carrot looks like. He told us about a man in Newark who got his Stimulus check in 2009, went out and bought a Weedwhacker and a hoe, and began turning a drug dealer's vacant lot into a garden -- gradually reclaiming his neighborhood one weed at a time. He summed up by saying: "Life is about getting up every day and doing something, not necessarily something big, but doing it every day."

Numerous speakers had the same message. Take Ray McCormick, an Indiana farmer whose background is about as different from Cory Booker's as you could imagine. McCormick's big idea is to urge farmers, city governments, and the Department of Agriculture to find ways to turn the nation's farmlands into outdoor opportunities for the next generation by getting young people onto working landscapes as well as recreational ones. He said farmers would welcome it, and children would benefit from it: "Conservation is hard work. We all have to do the hard work."

Hearing these similar messages from people with different backgrounds was more than just instructive. This sprawling family of Americans who care about our land has become very dysfunctional during the past 30 years, so getting them together to sing from the same hymnal was an important first step.

As I thought about the gathering, it struck me that there really were two crucial moments when the conservation family  was fragmented. The first was in 1980, when President Reagan and Interior Secretary James Watt deliberately eliminated federal programs that provided support and connection between entities like the National Park Service and state and local governments. That had the effect of badly weakening the vertical connection between local communities and the federal government on land issues.

The second great schism happened during the 1990s, when the radical right set out to divide rural conservationists (such as farmers, hunters, and anglers) from urban and suburban environmentalists. Unfortunately, they were spectacularly successful, as both sides took the bait and created a wound that only now is slowly beginning to heal. That political wedge disconnected conservationists horizontally, if you will -- urban versus rural.

During the afternoon breakout session, one attendee, a senior official with the Department of Agriculture, passed me a message: "Do you really think we can bring the severed family back together?"

I do. But first we need to understand the forces working against a family reunification. I think Roosevelt summed up the biggest threat, which he apparently thought he had on the run in 1908. In his opening remarks, he told the governors:

"We are coming to recognize as never before the right of the Nation to guard its own future in the essential matter of natural resources. In the past we have admitted the right of the individual to injure the future of the Republic for his own present profit. In fact there has been a good deal of a demand for unrestricted individualism, for the right of the individual to injure the future of all of us for his own temporary and immediate profit. The time has come for a change. As a people we have the right and the duty, second to none other but the right and duty of obeying the moral law, of requiring and doing justice, to protect ourselves and our children against the wasteful development of our natural resources, whether that waste is caused by the actual destruction of such resources or by making them impossible of development hereafter."

We know today that this recognition is hard fought and resisted in every generation by the forces of radical shortsightedness and selfishness. In 1980, it got the upper hand. President Obama deserves recognition for trying to restore "the right of the Nation to guard its own future." Even more, though, he deserves our help.

Yes, as Ray McCormick said, it will be hard work. But we all need to do it -- together.