By Laura E. Huggins
Hearing President Obama talk about his "America's Great Outdoor Initiative," I couldn't help but think of another man from Chicago—the lead character in the comedy, "The Great Outdoors." Big-hearted Chicago man Chet takes his family to a lakeside cabin, where he has high hopes for a great outdoors experience; his optimism quickly fizzles as his plan unravels and his family becomes miserable.
Obama claims 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." He goes on to say that the Outdoors Initiative will be a bottom-up effort.
Here's the problem, if indeed Obama intends to emulate President Roosevelt, then the approach will be top-down, not bottom-up.
Instead of keeping environmental management at the local level where it is most efficient and effective, we are moving toward more centralization. This trend - call it green nationalism - is not new.
Theodore Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" platform moved the country away from local control of resources toward bureaucratic management for the masses. Roosevelt set aside 200 million acres of public land and created federal management agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest service. These agencies were to "produce the greatest good for the greatest number" - a novel but impossible goal. History has proven that managing resources from Washington means politically directed projects, which often ignore fiscal realities and long-term environmental effects.
Boosting EPA budget
President Obama has taken several steps toward centralization. He has increased the Environmental Protection Agency's budget to $10.5 billion in 2010 (a 35 percent increase) and passed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which includes 170 bills to federally administer public lands and rivers at an estimated startup cost of $6.4 billion. He has also added more than 2 million acres to today's 600 million-acre federal estate, losing millions of tax dollars a year on land rich in resources because there is no incentive to control management costs or to generate returns on resource such as timber.
In the meantime, maintenance of our public lands falls by the wayside. The National Park Service alone estimates that it would need an extra $9.5 billion to clear a backlog of repairs and improvements. Another goal of the Great Outdoors Initiative is reconnecting people to the outdoors. In Obama's words, "the federal government" has a responsibility to "reconnect Americans, especially children, to America's rivers and waterways, landscapes of national significance, ranches, farms and forests, great parks, and coasts and beaches."
It is true that children are spending less time outdoors. Indeed, visits to national parks have been trending down since 1987; in 2008, fewer people entered national parks than they did 20 years ago. Parents are no longer sending their kids to camps or even outside to play. Author Richard Louve coined this phenomena "nature deficit disorder" in his book "Last Child in the Woods." As a parent and an environmentalist, this situation concerns me, but is it the federal government's job to solve this problem?
Obama's response to this "crisis" is to create another one of the government programs that seem to be spun out of the White House every week. The Great Outdoors Initiative calls on no less than three Cabinet secretaries (Interior, Agriculture, and EPA), plus the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality to develop "A 21st Century Strategy for America's Great Outdoors."
If indeed the Great Outdoors Initiative means looking to the private sector, nonprofits, and the people who live and work in cities and towns across America to identify innovative bottom-up solutions to protect the environment - fantastic.
But buyer beware. Listen for words such as "public partnerships," "leveraging" and "public goods". They usually mean one thing: The federal government hopes to expand into yet another part of our lives.
Laura Huggins, research fellow at PERC in Bozeman and at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is the co-author of Greener Than Thou: Are You Really an Environmentalist?