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The future of recreation on National Forests

Ensuring that recreation programs serve as critical links between citizens and their public lands.

By Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop

Forest Service logoWe are concluding the celebration of the Forest Service's 100-year anniversary. Over the last year, we have taken the time to reflect on our rich history, take stock of our past and celebrate our achievements. But it has also been a time for us to look forward to the future-- on how the Forest Service can be as relevant in the next 100 years as it has been in the past. That's what I will share with you today.

"Are current recreation and forest priorities poised to respond to the changing composition of America?"
In a not so distant past, typical national forest visitors were white, middle class families from rural farms or neighboring communities-- who like generations before them-- regularly converged on national forests and parks. There, they were reminded of what to them were obvious interdependence and connection to nature and the land.

If you examined the text in Forest Service recreation brochures, websites and interpretive signs, more of them than not, I'm afraid you'd think not much has changed. But it has-- dramatically!

Citizens we serve today and in the near future are very different from the 50s and 60s. The U.S. population has topped 275 million. At least 77 percent of that total resides in cities or-- at the very least-- suburbs. The largest spikes in our population result from immigration and the fastest growth in rural America-- where traditional forest visitors had resided-- comes from an influx of Hispanic immigrants. Racial and ethnic minorities now comprise 17 percent of non-metro residents and are more geographically dispersed across the nation.

Unlike traditional visitors, however, connections to public forests and natural landscapes are not as understood. Interaction often is -- at best-- sporadic; many of our newest constituents do not understand how forests are relevant to their livelihoods.

This begs the question: Are current recreation and forest priorities poised to respond to the changing composition of America? Despite undeniable population shifts, better than half of our visitors remain unchanged from traditional populations. On California's Angeles National Forest, for example, an area which has experienced the largest influx of Hispanic growth, 79 percent of national forest visitors are still Non-Hispanic Whites.

Our most significant challenges and opportunities are to serve as a bridge between traditional visitors and the new faces of America-- offering experiences that better appeal to a diversity of values and cultures. Together, we must ensure all Americans-- including urban and minority populations-- do more than appreciate forests; they must understand forests are vital to their lives. Our mission to sustain healthy forests can be achieved in the long run only if people remain socially connected to them.

Equally critical to our efforts to link an increasingly diverse and urbanized society to land and its resources, is the priority to ensure future generations of children and teenagers maintain their ties to forested landscapes. In a competition with "Ipods," TV's "American Idol", and the "X-Box," I, along with many other conservation leaders, fear healthy forests left in the hands of these future leaders may wind up the loser. This point was driven home last Sunday in an news article in the Albuquerque Tribune, which focused on Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder." The article discussed a growing concern over children's disconnection from nature. Louv blames the rise in childhood obesity, depression and attention deficit disorder to the dramatic drop in the number of children who spend significant time in the outdoors. One recent medical report bears this out as doctors saw measurable improvement in children who suffered from attention deficit order when they were exposed to green space. In the article, writer Carrie Seidman also said American sportsmen, in particular, are worried that younger generations, removed from the land, increasingly have lost their sense of survival and connection to land and water. In the past, Americans sought to preserve that connection for their children through camping, hunting and fishing.

Today, there has been a troubling decrease in the number of parents who expose their children to nature's amazing gifts. If we don't develop a successful strategy to reverse this trend, there are far reaching, perilous implications for the future of public lands. Most of our present day and historical leaders who became conservation and environmental advocates made their connection to nature as kids. Absent that connection, who will lead us tomorrow?

There is a great opportunity to increase the partnership between conservation education and the recreation industry. These two programs are inextricably intertwined in their goals to reach out to an increasingly disconnected younger generation-- starting with reconnecting their parents to the land. These two programs should work congruently together to ensure State and Federal education leaders recognize the importance of outdoor education. Moreover, we must ensure they remain committed to funding these programs in local school systems.

Our ability to target these new markets and broaden support for forested lands could spell the difference in the survival of healthy public forests and financially sustainable recreation programs-- private or public. Recreation experiences, which connect public lands to a wide array of cultural values offer our best shot at reaching changing populations. The "right" recreation experience in a forest or park can leave an indelible Ševen life changing impression. Take me for example.

At 10 years old, I had a profound visit to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park that affected my life's direction. My father had just died; my mother took my brothers and sister and me on a camping trip to the Great Smokies. There, I met a Park Ranger who captured my interest as he interpreted the American Chestnut story, the connection of watersheds; lets just say I was hooked. That encounter at a national park helped me through a difficult time and gave me an enduring new interest. I decided natural resources would be my life's work when I was 11 years old.

As we learn more about the values and cultures of our new citizens, they, too, can develop a lifelong love for the outdoors. But we must be willing to change the way we communicate about, prioritize, market and operate recreation programs so they resonate with new constituents.

Meanwhile, we must not abandon traditional supporters. As the old saying goes, "Don't forget to dance with the one who brought you." We must continue to pay close attention to their needs, recognizing their long-standing contributions to forest conservation.

We all know Congressional leaders respond to voters. As competition for Federal funding intensifies, one of our highest priorities-- particularly for recreation programs-- is to ensure forests are relevant-- especially in light of changing demographics. Take the declining health of Americans as an example. Concerns over obesity in suburban teens, diabetes among ethnic minorities and long-term health care for baby boomers rank high as a national budget priority. The President, for example, proposed a 186 percent increase in the Centers for Disease Control budget for "Steps to a Healthier US" from 2004 to 2005 alone. This issue presents an opportunity for us to join forces with healthcare leaders in linking America's fitness to our forests. In addition to marketing Forests as beautiful gems, G-E-M-S, maybe we should be promoting them as accessible, inexpensive G-Y-M-S, Gyms. Wouldn't it be great to walk into a doctor's waiting room or health center and see forest recreation brochures strewn among the "Shape" and "Fitness" magazines? This change in dialogue could foster new partnerships with educators, the medical industry, AARP, the Hispanic and Black Congressional Caucuses. Isn't it natural to consider financial support from Appropriations that support National Health priorities? How can healthy forests not be part of a national dialogue on families and fitness?

Another top priority for this agency is to strengthen support for forests by making it easier to form partnerships with traditional and nontraditional citizens and groups. Newly proposed partnership legislation, which the Congress is considering, will lead to progress in this arena-- cutting red tape and creating consistency in executing agreements.

One final challenge is to create financially sustainable recreation programs. Competing with other national budget priorities, we-- more than ever-- must demonstrate fiscal restraint when committing Federal funds. This holds true for a recreation program that's facing a maintenance backlog totaling more than $328 million. The Forest Service is making significant progress in shifting recreation funds and activities so they better respond to market demands. We are realigning recreation opportunities by determining their niche within regional and local economies. We're prioritizing investments in facilities based on resource capability. We're employing new authorities to sell excess facilities that are no longer affordable. We are also exploring other funding options through work with the private sector that could allow private investments in campgrounds and other amenities.

If we can successfully maintain strong ties to traditional supporters, and if we increase forest relevance to changing constituencies and if we develop financially sustainable programs, we will be well positioned for success in a rapidly changing political, social and budgetary climate. Moreover, we will promote stronger relationships between diverse groups, a healthier respect for differing values and a sustainable future for forests. This makes good business sense for us and for the recreation and tourism industry.

There's no question we are facing tremendous challenges-- but it's also a great opportunity. It will take all of us to ensure recreation programs serve as a critical link between citizens and their public lands. The Forest Service is committed to the challenge-- all we need is you.

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