Agriculture Secretary Vilsack discusses AGO Initiative, praises outdoor recreation leaders at June Recreation Exchange

Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the special guest at the June 2010 Recreation Exchange, hosted by the American Recreation Coalition (ARC). Top federal agency representatives and recreation enthusiasts gathered on Agriculture’s Whitten Patio to hear the Secretary’s remarks about the Obama Administration’s America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative and for the presentation of ARC’s 2010 Legends Awards.

Harris Sherman, Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, introduced the Secretary and praised his key role in implementing President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. Mr. Sherman recognized the importance of outdoor recreation, particularly its ability to connect people to the environment, its contribution to the health of Americans, and its economic importance. He also noted that the upcoming National Get Outdoors Day (GO-Day) – which introduces children and families, many of them first-time public land users, to fun outdoor activities and outdoor recreation skills – was a prime example of the great work that can be accomplished through partnerships between land management agencies and non-governmental organizations, and he cited GO-Day as a wonderful way to connect people to their local national forests.

Secretary Vilsack amplified Under Secretary Sherman’s praise for National Get Outdoors Day, coordinated by the U.S. Forest Service and ARC, and expressed great pride that GO-Day would be celebrated at the highest-ever number of sites across the nation in 2010 – more than 90. He said that America’s outdoor spaces are truly some of the nation’s greatest treasures, surpassing the architectural gems of other nations. Everyone should be involved in the outdoors, he added, and noted that the President had asked him and other top Administration officials to lead the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to find ways to create opportunities to better connect Americans to these important outdoor spaces we all share and to craft a 21st Century conservation agenda.

The Secretary outlined three key reasons for the launch of the AGO Initiative. First, he said, we need to connect people to the environment in order to preserve and protect the environment, adding that we “cannot just take from Mother Nature – we have to give back.” People must understand the importance of the natural world and its relevance to their lives, he said, no matter where they live.

Another key reason for AGO is economic development tied to the outdoors. Secretary Vilsack noted that outdoor recreation provides jobs for 6.5 million Americans. The outdoor economy is particularly important to rural America, he added, where the United States has more than 650 million acres of public lands and over 1.3 billion acres of private working lands. The Secretary noted that 74% of all retirees live in close proximity to a national forest, and many of these folks take advantage of the outdoor activities like hunting and fishing that these forest offer.

The Secretary also commented on the important role in improving the health of Americans played by time outdoors. He noted that, today, nearly one-third of America’s children are obese and spend exponentially more time in front of screens than they do in the outdoors. He also stressed that weight is strongly tied to students’ self-image and academic success. The Secretary shared his personal story of growing up as an overweight child, and noted that concerns about his body often affected his self-esteem and performance in school. Addressing the obesity crisis in America can also substantially reduce healthcare costs, he added, as overweight children tend to bring their habits into adulthood, which has significant consequences for their healthcare costs.

While these are three keys reasons for the AGO Initiative, said Secretary Vilsack, there are many more reasons to celebrate the outdoors and to get people outside enjoying themselves. And, he noted, you don’t need fancy equipment to enjoy nature! He thanked everyone present for their contributions to the outdoors, and let them know that he is extremely appreciative for what they do everyday.

Secretary Vilsack, who is also playing an important role in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, noted that while Let’s Move is about helping children and families make good nutritional decisions, it is also about being physically active. For more information, visit www.LetsMove.gov.

The Secretary mentioned two other important initiatives underway in the Administration. The first is a livability initiative undertaken jointly by the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. He also encouraged people with good ideas for improving the quality of life in rural America to submit nominations for the Department of Agriculture’s Community Facility Grant Program.

When asked about how to protect and maintain federal outdoor recreation programs at a time of domestic spending constraints, the Secretary said recreation funds need to be separated from the fire-fighting budget. In the recent past, the U.S. Forest Service’s budget has been overwhelmed by fire-fighting costs. Secretary Vilsack said that Congress is working to fund fire fighting in a way that will protect the Forest Service’s ability to maintain national forest programs, including recreation. He added that the federal deficit is a huge problem, and he supported measures needed to correct it because those measures will ultimately protect the national forests as well as the economy.

Secretary Vilsack also helped present the American Recreation Coalition's Legends Awards. Six exemplary employees of federal agencies were recognized for their actions to significantly enhance recreation opportunities. Recipients ranged from senior national officials to creative and dedicated field-level staffers. For information on the accomplishments of the Legends Award winners, visit www.funoutdoors.com.

For more information about the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, visit www.DOI.gov/AmericasGreatOutdoors.

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 Secretary Vilsack, he can be reached as follows:
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Room 200A
Washington, DC 20250
(202) 720-3631


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 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