Getting to “America’s Great Outdoors”

Last Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other senior officials in the Obama Administration hosted a “listening session” in Poughkeepsie, NY for the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which aims to figure out how to “reconnect” Americans, especially youth, to our natural resources and to preserve the outdoors. The turn-out was tremendous: Over 200 people, including Pete Seeger, filled the room, and the topics ranged from preserving farms to keeping parks open to assuring “no child left inside.” But there was almost no discussion of transportation––how to actually get people to the places we want them to connect to.

Speaking at the session, TSTC’s Nadine Lemmon cited the success of transit in getting people to destinations like the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY.  “Perhaps we should coin the term Transit-Oriented Preservation,” she said, referencing the role of smart growth policies that promote growth in downtowns while relieving pressure on farms and greenfields. Jeff Anzevino of Scenic Hudson (a TSTC board member), said that federal policy should do more to encourage links between urban areas and nearby open spaces.

This session was one of 25 across the country and included introductory remarks by officials and politicians, a panel discussion, and smaller break-out sessions where the public could voice their opinions. The effort is an attempt to get feedback from those on the ground that have successfully driven many of the country’s conservation efforts; as the attending politicians were eager to point out, the Hudson Valley has made great strides in preserving its natural treasures.  The administration is also taking comments online.

The only other significant mention of transportation came during the panel discussion on agriculture. Judith Labelle of the Glynwood Center, a nonprofit working to help save farming in the Northeast, stated that smaller livestock farmers in the Hudson Valley have had a difficult time “processing” their product because the closest slaughterhouse is 150 miles from most farms. This lack of infrastructure means higher costs and more driving for the farmer, stress on the transported animals, and wear and tear on the roads. The Glynwood Center’s solution is what it calls the “first and only” modular mobile slaughterhouse in the country, which has been identified by farmers, chefs, and food advocates as a key link in the local sustainable food system.

President Obama launched the initiative in April, and it is being led by the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, the Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. Though transportation issues are not mentioned in any of the public materials, the initiative does involve coordination with eight other departments including Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, which have worked together on the types of downtown-promoting policies that go hand-in-hand with protecting open space.

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