Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Great Outdoors Initiative forum held in Helena

Federal officials got an earful Wednesday at a listening session in Helena on how to better protect open lands and get people, especially children, into the great outdoors as part of President Barack Obama’s Great Outdoors Initiative.

Jay Erickson with the Montana Land Reliance called for renewal of conservation-easement tax incentives, which could give ranchers more reason to keep from subdividing their property.

Bob Sanders with Ducks Unlimited wants to focus attention on preserving the wide open native prairies of Eastern Montana and the Dakotas, which he called “one of the most productive areas on Earth.”

Jim Quillin suggested keeping the management of public lands in Montana out of the hands of East and West Coast bureaucrats, while Jonathan Matthews with the Sierra Club noted that some limits to local control also are needed.

Many of those attending, though, said they would at least like to see land-management discussions begin at the local level before working their way to Washington.

Chris Bardash would like it to be a lot cheaper to recreate with his family in the national parks.

“It’s $200 a night to stay at a hotel in Yellowstone. There’s something wrong with that,” Bardash said. “When you go there with babies and grandparents, you can’t camp, but you’re priced out of staying in the hotels.”

The five men were among about 200 people who crowded into two banquet rooms at the Red Lion Colonial Inn in Helena, as one of four listening sessions held only in Montana this week on the president’s initiative. One session was held in Ovando on Tuesday, and two others were in Missoula and Bozeman on Wednesday. Additional listening sessions are expected to be scheduled in other states in the near future.

Robert Bonnie, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, said the sessions were enlightening to the dozens of federal officials attending them. Vilsack, John Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, and Nancy Sutley, chairman of the White House Council for Environmental Quality, were among top federal officials who attended Tuesday’s session.

“This has been a great day and a half,” Bonnie said at the end of Wednesday’s session. “I’ve been in conservation for 20 years and learned a lot yesterday and today.

“We’ll announce more listening sessions in other parts of the country, but felt strongly that the place to kick these off is in Montana, because of the depth of experience in these issues.”

Former Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora urged officials to encourage their forest and park employees to get out from behind their computer tubes and into the public lands, to demonstrate the behaviors the president is calling for.

“I was a Forest Service employee for 20 years, and the employees are spending about half the time they used to in the field,” Flora said. “And stop outsourcing. You’re putting in people who are not trained and with no career dedication that most federal employees have.”

Flora and others also pleaded with the federal government for a more stable funding mechanism instead of relying on one-year appropriations.

“People come up with multiyear plans, and I had to sit there like a fool saying I can fund you through September and then we are done. I can’t promise you anything. A lot of land managers feel that way,” she said.

Along those financial lines, Lynda Saul with the Department of Environmental Quality noted that they had to send about $10 million in wetland preservation funding back to the federal government because it couldn’t be used for a variety of reasons. She said more flexibility is needed with federal funding.

Ellen Simpson with Montana Wood Products and others also said that if the government wants more people to use the outdoors, they need to make it easier to get into the forests.

“We need to open, not close, access to people,” Simpson said. “How you do that is up to the land managers, but if you want people to get off the couch and outdoors, you need to make it fairly easy to do.”

Mary Sexton, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the federal government also needs to move faster and be more responsive in land exchanges with the state.

“A Forest Service land exchange in the Lolo took nine years. With private parties it’s usually two years, and we just finished one with the tribes in a year,” Sexton said. “Then, in land exchanges with the BLM, they offer land nobody wants.”

Ken McDonald with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, added that the federal government also needs to change rules regarding matching-fund programs, because instead of the money going toward the highest priority projects, it often is used for those with matching state or private monies.

“So it’s used for where you can get the best match rather than what the best conservation priorities are,” McDonald said.

Jennifer Harris, a mother of three young children, added that what’s really needed to make the Great Outdoors Initiative work is to support teachers doing more hands-on applications as well as finding ways for parents to get reconnected with the land.

“We would get more users who would be more empathetic with what’s going on with the land and have a better voice on policies,” Harris said. “I think we can create some programs to take to state parks and become a model for the nation, to try to get families more connected to the outdoors.”

For more information on the initiative, go to

People also can send comments, along with stories of favorite places or conservation efforts, to

Obama has asked for a report on the initiative to be submitted on him by Nov. 15.

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