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President Barack Obama on Wednesday called for an outdoors program that employs youngsters as trail builders, manages lands on a broader ecosystem level and gives hundreds of millions of dollars annually to conservation programs.
Some of it he can do on his own. Some of it is about to run into Washington's brewing budget showdown.
The ultimate goal is to maintain adequate open spaces for Americans' physical and mental health, the president said, and to engage young people in nature. He noted that two years ago he signed legislation designating more than 2 million acres of wilderness, 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers and three national parks, but said the outdoors need more attention as the nation's cities swell.
"Today," he said, "our open spaces are more precious than ever."
As part of his "America's Great Outdoors Initiative," Obama announced he is seeking full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a 45-year-old program that pays for everything from federal land and easement purchases to state grants for state and local parks, trails and other uses. If fully funded Congress in 1977 authorized it at $900 million a year but paid out just $38 million last year it could help Utah avoid state park closures, for instance.
The money comes from offshore oil and gas drilling taxes, but through the years most of it has been diverted to other programs.
"If you take something out of the earth you have a responsibility to give a little bit back to the earth," Obama said in a Wednesday ceremony streamed live on the White House website.
House Republicans have proposed eliminating the fund altogether this year, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, supports that cut. His spokeswoman, Melissa Subbotin, said the government has used the account to "grow the federal estate."
"It is perplexing that while Republicans are working on behalf of all Americans to cut spending and pay down the deficit," she said, "the president opted to roll out a new proposal to increase spending for this unnecessary federal program."
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, long has supported full funding for the program, which aids hunters and anglers, spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend said. Now, though, "it is targeted for deep cuts this year in the House of Representatives, so its funding levels are uncertain."
The outdoors initiative was prepared at Obama's request over 10 months and included a listening tour. One thing young people reportedly told officials was that they wanted outdoor job opportunities. The initiative responds with a Conservation Service Corps that would draw on such existing programs as AmeriCorps and youth internships to direct young people into trail building and other paid outdoor experiences.
Obama also proposes managing federal lands cooperatively across agency boundaries to ensure room for landscape adaptations to climate change. He praised earlier presidents' conservation efforts, including Abraham Lincoln's land grant for what became Yosemite National Park, and said conservation "became one of our greatest exports" as other nations adopted a conservation ethic.
Environmentalists were overjoyed by the plan. Marc Heileson, the Salt Lake City-based Southwest program director for the Sierra Club, hopes it signals a willingness to expand wilderness protections in coming years.
Full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund would be huge, said Wilderness Society conservation funding director Alan Rowsome. The program already is paid for with oil and gas revenues, he said, and Obama just needs Congress to halt the flow of these dedicated funds to other purposes.
"The president," Rowsome said, "is trying to meet an unmet 45-year promise."
America's Great Outdoors
O See the administration's report on its outdoor agenda.