My Summer Reading: Public Lands and the Next Generation of Roosevelts

Like many Americans in summertime, I escaped the city this August and sought refuge in the natural world. For me, it was the shady woods and cool mountain lakes of the Adirondacks, but thanks to our nation's long history of conservation, Americans have thousands of public lands destinations to choose from.

It is easy to take our remarkable natural heritage for granted. After all, we have 58 national parks, 155 national forests, almost 700 wilderness areas, and countless state and city parks.

But this August, I read two things--a Teddy Roosevelt biography called The Wilderness Warrior (read a review here) and a report called Great Outdoors America--that helped me realize that while these lands may be set aside on paper, their health and vitality are not guaranteed.

Every generation of Americans has a responsibility to preserve our public land for our children and grandchildren. And every generation of American leaders has to show the way. We can start by creating an affirmative, sweeping vision of what we want our national heritage to become.

Douglas Brinkley's biography of Roosevelt reminded me that our first wilderness treasures were not preserved by accident. They gained protection thanks to the dogged agenda of a bold leader.

Roosevelt was a hunter, of course, but he was also a naturalist who admired Darwin and knew the taxonomy and classification of the many birds and mammals he encountered. He also had a prescient grasp of the fact that healthy habitat leads to healthy wildlife.

This is what inspired Roosevelt to begin the great American tradition of setting wild landscapes aside for the benefit of animals and the enjoyment of human beings.

Our country has built on his legacy, but the Great Outdoors America report reveals that just because Roosevelt and his followers created parks doesn't mean we can rest on their laurels.

Great Outdoors America was generated by a bipartisan group of conservation and recreation experts led by Senators Lamar Alexander and Jeff Bingaman. The group was charged with assessing the health of our wild and recreational lands.

Their conclusion? Though we have inherited a wealth of open space, we are not adequately protecting our public lands in the face of climate change, booming development, or public health crises like childhood obesity.

Take, for example, the fact that the Land and Water Conservation Fund--the congressionally mandated pool of money for public lands--has never been fully funded. Indeed, its budget has fallen woefully short by hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to the report, we can revive our commitment by fully funding a comprehensive program that links local and federal, public and private efforts to protect public lands and by aggressively promoting recreation and outdoor education for America's youth--to inspire the next Roosevelts.

In this time of daunting economic challenges, there are many demands on federal funds. But keep in mind that public lands make our communities livable and generate billions in tourist dollars. They also sustain the vein of wild, rugged adventure that runs through our national character.

Roosevelt exemplified that spirit, but we can carry it into the 21st century. 

Every time we visit a national monument or walk through an urban park, we are benefiting from the hard work of citizens who came before us, people who took the trouble to set these lands aside and care for them over the years. We should pass the same privilege on to our children and grandchildren.

My favorite time in the Adirondacks this August was when my husband and I were joined by our three daughters. Sharing time as a family in the woods--far from the distractions of Blackberries and Facebook--is something I will always remember. I hope that my daughters' children will still have access to healthy wild refuges to do the same.