Before sustainability there was environmentalism and before environmentalism there was conservation, exemplified by America’s national park system, which began in 1872 with Yellowstone and was greatly expanded by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th Century. While sustainability is rightly concerned with urbanization and human affairs, for the many of us clustered in cities, cloistered in front of computer screens, it’s easy to forget the vast and wondrous natural world. Indeed, the term “nature deficit disorder” was coined for a generation more immersed in virtual reality than the even more amazing natural reality it’s based on.
Reminding us of and renewing our conservation heritage is a crucial part of America's Great Outdoors program, which was launched in April 2010 and carried out more than 50 public meetings across the country. Coinciding with the release of the program’s official report, on February 25 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar discussed America's Great Outdoors in an interview at the Center for American Progress. Salazar emphasized partnering with different groups, including not just governors and mayors but ranchers, farmers, and anglers, among others. Indeed, he described his own background as a rancher as key to his awareness of land and environmental issues. He also pointed out that many Republicans as well as Democrats support public lands and wilderness preservation, that this should be a nonpartisan issue.
Salazar put forth four essential elements of America’s Great Outdoors: providing the next generation of great urban parks, connecting up rural landscapes, improving river health, and involving youth.
If skeptics might feel that our wilderness areas are in danger of becoming a kind of glorified museum, ever decreasing islands in an ocean of rising human population, this is more true globally than in America. Salazar was rosy, pointing out that 30% of the American land mass is now protected. He described the Everglades as the most successful protection effort on the entire planet. Further, he emphasized how habitat bridges are allowing increased connectivity, making the country not a patchwork of wildernesses but one living, breathing system.
Salazar’s optimism was appropriate for the launch of America's Great Outdoor's, but it was not unbroken. His gloomiest moment was in discussing global warming, predicting that by 2020 Glacier National Park will no longer have any glaciers. He also pointed out that “many Republicans have vowed to kill” wildland policies, a brief acknowledgement of a bruising political battle that must be occupying much of his time. Yet he added that a number of Republicans in Congress continue to introduce wilderness bills for their states, returning to the theme that conservation historically has reached across ideological lines. For environmentalists, this is well worth remembering; sustainability has to be more than an enclosed conversation among the initiated. We need to talk to and partner with those who might have different sets of values, across a spectrum of life experiences and philosophies. Perhaps we have more in common than first appears. At the very least, we can agree to disagree upon some issues while working together, when possible, to preserve our wilderness.