Will Shafroth encourages outdoor recreation groups to participate in formation of America’s Great Outdoors Initiative

Will Shafroth, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, was the special guest at the April 2010 Recreation Exchange hosted by the American Recreation Coalition. Prior to taking his position at the Interior Department, Mr. Shafroth was a founder and executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Conservation Trust from 2000 to 2008. The group increased the pace and effectiveness of land and wildlife habitat conservation in Colorado, raising $18 million in private contributions, spurring the investment of $35 million into conservation projects, and leveraging $200 million in public funds. His efforts helped preserve 30,000 acres of wildlife habitat and open space.

Additionally, Mr. Shafroth was a key player in the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund (GOCO), serving as its first executive director. During his time with GOCO – which is funded by Colorado lottery proceeds – Mr. Shafroth oversaw the granting of $250 million for 1,600 projects that preserved 300,000 acres of wildlife habitat, ranchland and open space. The initiative built diverse partnerships with ranchers, sportsmen, conservationists, businesspeople and government officials, including state administrators and legislators. GOCO also established parks, trails, environmental education centers, a statewide cattlemen's land trust and youth conservation corps across the state. GOCO grants leveraged more than $1.5 billion in additional funding, said Mr. Shafroth, and became a catalyst in increasing the importance of the great outdoors in the lives of Coloradans. He noted that in 1992 there were only a handful of land trust groups in Colorado. Today, there are over 40. He explained that the Obama Administration is hoping to replicate Colorado’s success in increasing the relevance of the outdoors – but this time on a national level – with its first Administration-wide outdoors initiative – America’s Great Outdoors.

Mr. Shafroth gave the Recreation Exchange group an overview of the new America’s Great Outdoors Initiative and outlined the Administration’s next steps for the plan. The initiative officially launched with a White House Conference on April 16, in which the outdoor recreation community was actively involved. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will lead the initiative, said Mr. Shafroth, but with the President identifying the initiative as an Administration priority, multiple departments will also play critical roles. America’s Great Outdoors will be broad-ranging and seek to accomplish the following: reconnect Americans, especially children, to the outdoors; build upon current priorities for conservation of natural and cultural resources and enhance their connectivity; and use science-based management practices to protect these resources for future generations.

Urban parks and other places “close to home” will be a main focus of the plan, and Mr. Shafroth commented that the recreation community should think of using these nearby places as a sort of “gateway drug for the national parks.” President Obama has made it clear that he is also interested in the cultural-preservation side of the national parks mission, and believes that we as Americans need to tell our stories better. Mr. Shafroth said stories like that of the newest national park site, Port Chicago, where 320 mostly African-American men were killed in an ammunition explosion in 1944, need to be told.

Mr. Shafroth said that we need to protect our nation’s wildlife and their corridors and the natural environment in its entirety in larger ways. To do this, we need to think more broadly, flexibly and creatively. Times have changed, he said, and we must employ new tools and techniques that were not available during the time of the Roosevelts.

Crucial to the success of the initiative will be increased partnerships and cooperation, said Mr. Shafroth. He noted that 70 percent of America’s lands are owned by private individuals, and it is imperative to bring America’s “working lands” into the effort to connect Americans to the outdoors. Mr. Shafroth praised the former Centennial Challenge initiative celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service as a great way to leverage partnerships. While the initiative currently is not being funded, he noted, the department should review the pledges for matching funds and identify opportunities where more could be done. These partnerships and opportunities to leverage funds will be particularly important in the upcoming years when federal budgets are expected to be tight.

The White House’s memorandum on the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative calls for a report to be prepared by November 15 outlining the administration, budget, and policy for the initiative. A crucial part of the new plan, said Mr. Shafroth, will be listening sessions across the nation. Sessions have been announced for Florida, Montana and California, but many others will occur. Mr. Shafroth encouraged broad participation by the outdoor recreation community in the listening sessions, but also encouraged the group to propose their own listening sessions as well, as these are important ways to ensure the Administration hears from diverse groups around the country. Mr. Shafroth said that the Interior Department understands the importance of the outdoor recreation community, and is actively seeking suggestions on how to be a better partner in providing Americans with the outdoor experiences we all love. Mr. Shafroth called for the group to “stay involved in this process” as the initiative moves forward.

The Recreation Exchange group then offered Mr. Shafroth ideas and suggestions for the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. One attendee described an effort at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to employ Google Maps to show visitors how to access national wildlife refuges using public transit as well as by driving, walking or biking. He reported that the USFWS is using alternative transportation funding to address transportation needs in high priority sites, particularly to reach underserved communities. Another participant reminded the group to remember the importance of water and waterways in connecting Americans to public lands. For example, she said, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cares for 12 million acres of land within 50 miles of metropolitan areas, and these places can play important roles in reaching people close to home. Also noted was the need to encourage creative thinking in order to reach a more diverse audience. Cited as an example was Congressman Raúl Grijalva’s (D-AZ) interest in pursuing a Brian O’Neill Center (honoring the late and innovative superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area) to encourage more partnerships like those undertaken at the Presidio and Fort Baker in San Francisco.

Another participant urged cooperation with private land owners to enhance outdoor experiences, noting that fishing groups have benefitted from this focus. He suggested that minimizing landowner liability would facilitate the opening of more private land for outdoor recreation purposes. Mr. Shafroth agreed that the Administration needs to focus on this issue, and noted that it was a topic of discussion at the White House Conference and was even mentioned in the weekly staff meeting by Interior Chief of Staff and Assistant Secretary Tom Strickland. He mentioned that former Interior Secretary Babbitt had worked on a “Safe Harbor” initiative to lessen the regulatory burden on those landowners who were managing their land to protect threatened and endangered species.

When asked how the recreation community can take advantage of new opportunities like linking outdoor recreation to healthcare, Mr. Shafroth noted that new partners like the healthcare community can provide valuable funding and help Americans connect to the outdoors in new ways. He also remarked that Colorado reports the lowest rate of obesity in the country and also has the highest spending on parks and trails programs. Colorado also engages in the active promotion of outdoor activities to families and children.

In response to a question about the transportation reauthorization process, Mr. Shafroth commented that Interior has a strong interest in it. In fact, he said, $170 million in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was set aside for National Park Service roads alone, which provided “a serious shot in the arm” for the agency. He pointed out that the legislation would impact more than roads and cited the need to be creative with the opportunities presented by programs like Transportation Enhancements.

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: www.funoutdoors.com.

If you would like to contact Will Shafroth, he can be reached as follows:

Will Shafroth
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20240
(202) 208-5347

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
National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds
National Marine Manufacturers Association
National Park Service
National Recreation and Park Association
National Tour 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