Gina McCarthy connects clean air, children and outdoor recreation at September Recreation Exchange

Gina McCarthy, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was the guest speaker at the September 2009 Recreation Exchange hosted by the American Recreation Coalition. In her role at EPA, Ms. McCarthy is a leading national advocate for win-win strategies to confront climate change and strengthen the nation's green economy, and she plays an instrumental role in ensuring that EPA leads the way in addressing the nation's most urgent environmental priorities.

Ms. McCarthy expressed a commitment to infusing her love of the great outdoors into her new post at EPA. She credits her passion for environmental protection to long hours spent playing outdoors, both as a child and as an adult. “I’ve never stopped playing and I never will!” she proudly proclaimed.

Prior to her nomination by the President and confirmation by the Senate, Ms. McCarthy served as Connecticut's Commissioner of Environmental Protection, which included oversight of state parks. She told the group how she had arrived at her Commissioner position and faced a difficult financial situation, which threatened to lead to closure of several state parks. The situation required either requesting more funds from the state legislature or increasing visits to, and thus entrance fees from, Connecticut’s state parks. Ms. McCarthy knew she would have a hard time selling a budget increase for a failing park system to a legislature with which she was unfamiliar. She remarked, “People don’t care about closing parks if no one is going to them.” She opted to work towards building park visitation by increasing their visibility through innovative means.

Ms. McCarthy oversaw creation of the successful Great Park Pursuit program, modeled after the television show The Amazing Race, to attract families to state parks and reverse budgetary problems linked to lower visitation. Ms. McCarthy challenged families to visit state parks for seven consecutive weeks throughout the summer. Families could sign up for the challenge free of cost online to receive clues about which Connecticut landmarks to visit each weekend. The initiative attracted many outdoor recreation partners, including those like Eastern Mountain Sports, which donated mountain bikes, kayaks and more. The Great Park Pursuit has now spread to every New England state as well as other more distant states.

Her successful efforts to increase visitation to state parks also led to increases in political and financial support. In fact, she told the group how Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell had called to ask for her help in explaining to other agencies why her budget was increasing in the face of many other budgetary cutbacks!

In addition to increasing visitation to and funding for state parks, Ms. McCarthy’s efforts and her passion for serving children and families made a lasting positive impact on the citizens of Connecticut. She told the group that she received hundreds of phone calls from constituents thanking her for bringing their families together in the outdoors. She even recounted one phone call from a grateful woman who credited the Great Park Pursuit for saving her marriage. Ms. McCarthy explained that, for her, promoting outdoor recreation is inextricably linked to promoting family bonding and fostering healthy interpersonal relationships.

Ms. McCarthy was also heavily involved with the national No Child Left Inside initiative, and she urged Recreation Exchange participants to look at legislation being championed by U.S. Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD). The bill supports environment education curriculum both in and out of the classroom. She proudly reported that a Google search of “No Child Left Inside” turns up nearly 33 million hits.

She told the group that everyone who wishes to connect children to the outdoors must work to overcome the fears that have been instilled in them and in their parents. Too much negative information is leading parents to conclude that it is unsafe to allow their children to play outside alone. In addition, we have allowed communities to develop so that our roads are unsafe for bicycles and for walking, she said. Ms. McCarthy told how she was working to combat these misconceptions and other ill-informed attitudes through her work at EPA. As an example, she recounted how while working with air quality testing in urban areas, she had come upon a school principal who told the media that the students at his school were in no danger from any polluted air, “because our kids don’t go outside and the building is airtight!” Ms. McCarthy stated that, instead of keeping kids indoors and out of any potential harm’s way, we should be working to make the air clean enough for kids not only to go outside in their own schoolyards and neighborhoods, but also clean enough that they will one day be able to enjoy unobstructed views of the Grand Canyon. She told the group that the Clean Air Act is the most successful environmental law ever passed in terms of improving the quality of people’s lives, noting that it is actually possible to calculate the number of lives saved by the Act.

Ms. McCarthy is confident that this understanding of the real need for clean air and water – so future generations of Americans can continue to reap the benefits of the great outdoors – can be brought to the federal government in Washington. She noted that EPA’s new Administrator, Lisa Jackson, is also a mother who understands how clean air and water benefit families and future generations, and stated that Ms. Jackson is “bringing a new persona to EPA.” Ms. Jackson is committed to environmental justice and is focused on goals such as making sure public transportation to state parks and other outdoor recreation sites is available. Urban youth not visiting public lands because they do not have access is not acceptable, she added.

Based on her success in attracting partners to her Great Park Pursuit program in Connecticut, Ms. McCarthy is convinced that by working together as partners across all spectrums of environmental protection and outdoor recreation, we all can make the world a more livable place that we will be proud to hand down to our children. She also stressed the importance of connecting kids to public lands to develop the next generation of environmental stewards, saying, “If you don’t go out and play, you will make a terrible legislator!”

In answering a question about how to overcome the response of “it’s not my responsibility” if the recreation community has a suggestion that transcends the role of one federal agency or department, Ms. McCarthy stated that President Obama is not interested in stovepipe mentalities in the federal government and, instead, is a firm believer in partnerships and interagency cooperation. He has also demonstrated a great deal of interest in the idea of more livable communities. As a result, she said, “tables have been set” to achieve more than even our present goals. She also welcomed ideas from the group on how to reduce the environmental impact of the recreation industry, get urban children outside, and more. With regard to environmental standards, she said, “We are trying to drive improvements in design and manufacturing,” adding, “We want to be smart and thoughtful.”

Recreation Exchanges are hosted in Washington, D.C., by the American Recreation Coalition and feature guests who are influencing recreation public policy in America. Information on past and future programs is available at:

If you would like to contact Gina McCarthy, she can be reached as follows:
The Honorable Gina McCarthy
Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Room 5406A, ARN, MC-6101A
Washington, DC 20460
(202) 564-7404, fax (202) 501-0986

Recreation Exchanges are made possible by the following sponsors:

American Association for Nude Recreation
American Horse Council
American Motorcyclist Association
Bureau of Land Management
Bureau of Reclamation
Kampgrounds of America
Motorcycle Industry Council
National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds
National Marine Manufacturers Association
National Park Service
National Recreation and Park Association
National Tour Association
Personal Watercraft Industry Association
Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association
Recreation Vehicle Industry Association
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Forest Service