By Juliet Eilperin and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 17, 2010; A02
President Obama launched the America's Great Outdoors initiative Friday, an attempt to reshape U.S. conservation policy at a time when the nation is facing new environmental threats but the government is hard-pressed to afford new spending programs.
In a brief speech at the Interior Department, Obama said he intends to build on "a breathtaking legacy of conservation that still enhances our lives." He said the tradition began with Theodore Roosevelt, whom he described as "one of my favorite presidents," although he added, "I will probably never shoot a bear."
Obama said the nation's growing population, pollution and other factors are "putting a rising strain on our lands." He said government cannot address conservation issues alone, and he urged private industry, local communities, Native American leaders and volunteers to help protect the outdoors.
"Even in times of crisis, we're called to take the long view to preserve our national heritage, because in doing so, we fulfill one of the responsibilities that falls to all of us as Americans and as inhabitants of this same small planet," Obama said. "And that is the responsibility that we are rising to meet today."
Obama signed a memorandum sketching out broad goals that the administration hopes to pursue in the next few years: forming coalitions with state and local governments and the private sector; encouraging outdoor recreation by Americans; connecting wildlife migration corridors; and encouraging the sustainable use of private land.
Four administration officials -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Nancy Sutley, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality -- will spearhead the effort.
"It's really about getting people to think about the great outdoors again and recognize what a tremendous asset it is to our country," Vilsack said in an interview.
American children are spending half as much time outside as their parents did, according to the Interior Department, and the country loses 2 million acres a year to development. Government officials worry about the effect of land conversion on natural resources: The Maryland Office of Planning projects that more land in the region surrounding the Chesapeake Bay will have been converted to housing between 1995 and 2020 than in the previous 3 1/2 centuries.
Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope, who was among the environmental leaders attending Friday's day-long conference to launch the initiative, said he hoped a broad coalition of partners will be encouraged to reengage on public-lands issues.
It remains unclear how much the government can afford to spend on such programs in the future. The National Park Service alone estimates that it would need an extra $9.5 billion to clear a backlog of repairs and improvements.