USACE Chief of Operations Speaks at Recreation Exchange

June 1, 2011 (Washington, D.C.) - Mike Ensch, Chief of Operations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), was the special guest speaker at the Recreation Exchange on May 19, 2011 hosted by the American Recreation Coalition in Washington, D.C. Exchanges featuring guests who are influencing recreation public policy in America have been held since 1979.

Mr. Ensch has been Chief of Operations for the Corps’ Directorate of Civil Works since November 2007. He oversees key national programs including Operations and Maintenance of Navigation (locks, dams, channels, and harbors), Hydropower (facilities with a combined electrical-production capacity that is the largest in the U.S.), Environmental Stewardship (natural resources and recreation), and Regulatory (wetland protection, including Section 404 and Section 10 permits). Mr. Ensch also serves as the Regional Integration Team Leader for the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division of the Corps.

Mr. Ensch began the discussion by touching on the flood situation along the Mississippi River. Had it not been for the Corps-managed levee system, he said, the Mississippi River would be 80 miles wide at Vicksburg, Mississippi, as it was in pre-levee 1927. While Corps maintenance and management of our nation’s infrastructure is crucial – as evidenced by the events of May – recreation is also a priority of the organization. Mr. Ensch utilized the Recreation Exchange to describe the Corps' new recreation strategy, which will facilitate Corps efforts to continue its role as the nation’s largest public provider of places and opportunities for active recreation and healthy lifestyles. A primary goal of the strategy is engaging current and new partners to ensure quality and safe outdoor recreation opportunities.

The Corps hosts approximately 370 million annual recreation visits per year – the most recreation visits of any federal agency – and has the most diverse recreation base of any agency. Because of the diversity of participation and Corps recreation facilities, the new recreation strategy must be flexible and adaptable. Mr. Ensch noted that the policy development process involved securing input from a diverse array of Corps programs, including the Planning and Hydropower divisions, in order to develop a recreation plan that would be widely adaptable to current Corps sites.

The strategy includes an assumption that general funding for Corps recreation efforts will not grow, but that recreation opportunities must remain at or above current levels. Mr. Ensch noted that strong relationships with local communities are an excellent way for the Corps to be able to maintain its recreation facilities, which include some 90,000 family campsites. The recreation strategy becomes even more important in light of the federal fiscal situation, he said, because efforts at the local community level can help counter federal budget reductions. The strategy also supports regional, multi-project recreation initiatives.

The new recreation strategy suggests legislative changes which would improve the Corps’ partnering capability. If enacted, cooperative management with government and nonprofits could occur which allow exchange of services between lessees and the Corps – an ability the Corps lacks but many other federal agencies already have. This legislation would also allow collaboration and transfer of funds with other government agencies and nonprofits of mutual interest. Corps partnerships would continue to support events like Great Outdoors Week, National Get Outdoors Day, National Kids to Park Day and other events that are sponsored and attended by a large array of federal agencies and nonprofits.

A crucial goal of the upcoming strategy will be to keep decision-making power in the hands of local staff. Mr. Ensch stressed that resources must be placed in the hands of lake managers and district managers so that they can “work the situation” at the local level. Mr. Ensch said that past attempts at directing local activities have failed due to a lack of understanding at the national level. He pointed out that, in the 1980s, Corps headquarters issued a directive to undertake closures which would reduce spending by 10%, adding, “We are not going to do that again.” Site managers and other local leaders will be encouraged to pursue locally developed programs and partnerships, as well as relationships with local officials and Members of Congress. This arrangement will put control in the hands of staff, allowing them to develop the programs and partnerships that will be appropriate for their region. Mr. Ensch stressed that the recreation strategy must “be shaped from the bottom up” in order to be effective.

The Recreation Exchange concluded with a discussion of the Corps’ involvement in the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative. Mr. Ensch invited Mary Coulombe, Chief of Natural Resources Management for USACE and a member of AGO working groups, to elaborate on this topic. Both noted that AGO is not supported by any additional funding, so federal agencies must implement AGO within the context of the existing organizations and structures – a challenge that the Corps’ new recreation strategy will seek to address. AGO objectives focus on urban recreation sites – and 90% of Corps recreation lakes and rivers are within 50 miles of an urban area – and on improved access to public waters. The strategy also seeks to reach youth, another major AGO imperative.

Mr. Ensch wrapped up the afternoon’s discussion by extending an invitation to members of the recreation community, suggesting they collaborate with district commanders at Corps sites in their region. Local partnership development is the key to the recreation strategy’s success, he said, and the Corps will need leadership from the recreation community to make the most of their new directives. “The strategy has to be locally driven,” Mr. Ensch said. “If it’s not, it just won’t work.”

Information on past and future Exchanges is available at:

If you would like to contact Mike Ensch, he can be reached as follows:
Mr. Michael Ensch
Chief of Operations, Directorate of Civil Works
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
441 G Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20314

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