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What Obama's America's Great Outdoor Proposal Means for Southern California

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President Barack Obama hugs Sally Jewell, President and CEO of REI, during an event about the America's Great Outdoors initiative | Getty Images

Standing inside the East Room last week, President Barack Obama started off a speech with a little joke. "Well, welcome to the White House, everybody. It is great to have you here," he said. "What better place to hold our Great Outdoors event than right here." Laughter from the indoor crowd ensued and the ice was broken for Obama to dive into his latest environmental initiative, which has been warmly received by conservation groups across the country.

"Today, our open spaces are more precious than ever -- and it's more important than ever that we come together to protect them for the next generation," Obama said about the America's Great Outdoors initiative. "But at a time when America's open spaces are controlled by a patchwork of groups, from government to land trusts to private citizens, it's clear that conservation in the 21st century is going to take more than just what we can do here in Washington... It means helping states, communities and non-profits protect their own resources.  And it means figuring out how the federal government can be a better partner in those efforts."

Last year the White House held listening sessions across the country, gaining input to develop a "grassroots" agenda for conservation and recreation in the 21st century. The overarching goal is to protect lands and waters while making sure Americans connect to these natural and cultural heritage assets, and not just for their enjoyment, but to share in the responsibility in stewardship.

The report, released last Wednesday, paints broad strokes about America's desired outdoors of the future: job creation, better access to recreation opportunities, more awareness, especially from youth, and major conservation and restoration. Few specifics are given, but environmental groups are supporting the initiative.

"A big piece of it that's really exciting to us is that Obama is calling for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund," explained Ron Sundergill of the National Parks Conservation Association. Mainly funded by oil royalties, up to $900 million can be spent on land and water acquisition, recreation facilities and the conservation of threatened and endangered species ("if you take something out of the Earth, you have a responsibility to give a little bit back to the Earth," said Obama).

For Sundergill, the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, which on its eastern end bisects Los Angeles, stands a good chance of getting attention from the fund. Not only because the National Park Service continues to look for willing land sellers in the range to expand protected spaces and wildlife connectivity, but the report emphasizes integrating urban communities with parks and open space.

That theme is also important to the groups behind the San Gabriel Mountains Forever coalition, which aims to protect the last remaining bits of true wilderness in the L.A.-adjacent range--a bill introduced earlier this year aims to designate 18,000 acres as wilderness, about half of their goal--and have it designated as a National Recreation Area, meaning it would receive more resources.

Sierra Club's representative for the coalition Juana Torres says the Angeles National Forest is currently not being managed properly. "Here we are blessed with these public lands that many folks just see in the background on a clear day," she said. "Some folks don't know how to get there, what trails are open or who to ask those questions."

L.A. River activist George Wolfe discusses his thoughts about the recreational policy in the river | See more videos at KCET's Departures, an oral history and interactive documentary project.

Another aspect of the report focuses on something that is directly found within many Southern California communities: blueways. Defined as areas where the public can access enhanced recreational opportunities in local waterways and adjacent green spaces, the idea already fits in quite well with many local projects, including ones focused on the Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers, which combined envisions more than 150 miles of river access in four counties--Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange.

Despite calls for urban integration, Robert Garcia of the nonprofit and legal advocacy group The City Project remains somewhat wary of the initiative, likening it to Obama's State of the Union, which one New York Times op-ed columnist said "was only the second time since Harry S. Truman's State of the Union address in 1948 that such a speech by a Democratic president did not include a single mention of poverty or the plight of the poor."

Garcia said the good news was that low income communities, health, obesity and gangs were all mentioned, but not justice, equal justice and environmental justice. "There needs to be an explicit focus on people with the greatest needs, and we don't see that in the America's Great Outdoors report," he said.

One way Garcia thinks underserved populations can be aided is through jobs. The report recommends the creation of a 21st century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided jobs to 2.5 million men as a response to the Great Depression. "Unfortunately, they were mostly jobs for white men," he said.

Further out from the region's populous core of Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, another of the initiative's recommendation could have major impacts. In January, Senator Dianne Feinstein re-introduced the California Desert Protection Act. Her legislation calls for the creation of two new National Monuments and while Obama's initiative calls for use of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows, by executive order, him to designate public land as a National Monument (no vote by Congress would be needed).

"Not all administrations have used it," noted Sundergrill. "We're hoping this is a signal that the administration is ready and willing to use [it]."

Secretary Salazar sits in the drivers seat of a sand rail at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area | Photo by Tami Heillemann-DOI

Further south in the desert, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on Sunday drove around in a sand rail in the 160,000-acre Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area promoting the initiative to off-road vehicle enthusiasts, a group often skeptical of conservation initiatives. Salazar wanted to ward off fears that the initiative would limit off-roading. "The Imperial Sand Dunes are a prime example of how partnerships can create world-class recreation opportunities, reinvigorate our approach to conservation and reconnect Americans, especially our young people, with the nation's recreation lands and waters," he said.  Around 1.3 million people visit the dunes every year.

On Monday, the Secretary continued his tour in California's Central Valley to officially dedicate "Forty Acres" in Delano as a National Historic Landmark. The move to honor where César Chávez and others laid out the foundation for the farmworkers' movement was touted as being part of the America's Great Outdoors initiative.

Although "Forty Acres" exemplified the initiative in action, some question if the government can afford it in full. "Politically, emboldened House Republicans anxious to blunt the federal deficit have shown no interest in coming close to fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a task that would take $900 million," wrote Kurt Repanshek at National Parks Traveler. "The America's Great Outdoors initiative relies heavily on that full funding, which, proponents note, would come from royalties flowing from oil and gas leases on public lands."

Salazar, however, was optimistic in a response: "The president has said on his budget that it's a tough choices budget, and it is. It's a tough choices budget for all of us. We're funding these investments because this is the way that we are going to win the future."

For the record: An earlier version of this story attributed quotes to Annette Kondo of the San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign. It should have been given to Juana Torres.

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