The conservation of our resources,” former president Theodore Roosevelt once said, “is the fundamental question before this nation.”
The sentiment seems like a modern reaction to a shrinking natural world but, a century ago, Roosevelt saw an urgent need to protect wild places. He had witnessed the decline and near extinction of the buffalo, decimation of redwood forests and the destruction caused by rampant mining. The world population at that time was about a billion and a half. Now, with 7 billion and counting, President Barack Obama appears set on a conservation plan of his own, one seemingly tailored for the modern world, and it starts in Colorado.
The American Great Outdoors Initiative is a nationwide conservation plan to get more Americans outside, not only to instill in them an appreciation for open and wild places and a desire to protect them, but to create outdoors-related jobs and stimulate tourism. The Great Outdoors Initiative aligns somewhat disparate government agencies like the Departments of Interior (DOI) and Agriculture (USDA) with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council on Environmental Quality in order to conserve two or more key wilderness areas in each state. Colorado’s Front Range turns out to be the testing grounds for the new plan.
The Rocky Mountain Greenway, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced last May, “will connect the Denver Greenway System to the three National Wildlife Refuges in the Denver metro region and, eventually, to Rocky Mountain National Park.” In his speech, which took place at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Rocky Mountain Arsenal visitor center, Salazar said the plan would enhance the Denver metro region’s connections to the natural landscapes and counties surrounding it — and result in increased tourism spending.
The Rocky Mountain Greenway is one of three Colorado projects to be constructed under the Great Outdoors Initiative. Connecting three major National Wildlife Refuges — Rocky Flats, Two Ponds and Rocky Mountain Arsenal — with many smaller state parks and recreation areas, the plan creates a large wildlife corridor with 140 miles of unbroken trails in some 40,000 acres of open space. The plan also calls for water quality testing and improvement and eventual extension as far as Rocky Mountain National Park.
Urban areas are beautified with the addition of parks, and citizens benefit from outdoor activity, education and clean water, but there are real monetary benefits, too, according to the Great Outdoors Initiative. The plan cites the successful rehab of Confluence and Commons parks from dumping grounds for garbage and raw sewage in the ’70s to places that enhance the quality of life of Denver’s residents and attract tourists today.
“If there’s a system of trails to link national parks together, it would benefit communities around that trail system, absolutely,” says Maryann Mahoney, executive director of the Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The National Park Service just released data about total visitor spending in communities in and surrounding national parks, and it’s significant.”
Very significant, in fact. According to EPA figures, the national parks draw 280 million visitors each year, provide 250,000 related jobs to Americans and generate $12 billion in visitor spending.
“Outdoor recreation contributes $730 billion to the U.S. economy, and Colorado’s active outdoor recreation contributes more than $10 billion annually and supports more than 100,000 jobs,” says Avery Stonich of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), an outdoor recreation trade association based in Boulder. OIA estimates $289 billion of economic activity is generated nationally by peripherals like gas, food, taxes and retail sales and services in a ripple effect dependent on tourism at public lands and largely benefiting small business.
“People come to Boulder and they want an activity,” says Bill Leuchten, who owns Boulder’s Front Range Anglers. “They may go horseback riding, ballooning, hiking, or they may try fishing.”
Leuchten’s concern is with stream quality, and he says he feels that federal money would be best spent improving habitat in rivers like the Platte, which flows through much of the Greenway.
“Stream improvement would bring in revenue, no doubt,” Leuchten says. “Good fisheries bring people from all over the world.”
Leuchten employs six full-time retail employees and dozens of part time and private contractors as guides. He is one of many business owners whose livelihood depends upon sound conservation measures.
In financially stressful times, any advantage to local economies is precious, but there are skeptics.
“I think bringing people out to see wild animals and nature is pretty much always a good idea, especially if they can’t afford to do it otherwise,” says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, but he cautions that the process needs to be managed carefully.
"You’re going to have to be smart about it and think about what kind of infrastructure you’re creating to do that, and make sure that you aren’t damaging nature to do it.”
There have been many cases where conservation strategies aimed at protecting environments through stimulating economic gains have backfired, causing greater damage to the environment, he says.
“There’s a limit to how far you can go with the argument that protecting the environment has economic value,” Suckling says. “There certainly is economic value, but ultimately, nature needs to be protected because we have an ethical responsibility to do so, regardless of economic benefits.”