Protecting public land for descendants

Posted on October 2, 2017

Theodore Roosevelt once said that nothing short of defending this country in wartime “compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”

This weekend, Americans across the country will work to leave our public lands better for future generations by volunteering on public lands throughout the country to mark National Public Lands Day.

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors.

When I was governor of Tennessee in 1985, President Ronald Reagan asked me to chair the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors — and he challenged those of us on the commission “to look ahead for a generation and see what needs to be done for Americans to have appropriate places to do what they want to do outdoors.”

More than a generation has passed now, and on the 30th anniversary of the commission, we can look back on the recommendations of the report and take an assessment.

In our report 30 years ago, we found that most outdoor recreation occurs close to home, near towns or cities where 80 percent of us live. The idea that outdoor recreation occurs close to home was especially true for me.

I was one of the luckiest guys in the world growing up in Maryville — right next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because when you grow up next to a national park, what do you do? You grow up in the Park — you spend your weekends and special times there, and most all of the memories I have are related to the Smokies.

When I was 15, my dad dropped me off at Newfound Gap on the day after Christmas. I was with two other boys in 3 feet of snow and my dad said, “I’ll pick you up in Gatlinburg,” which was 15 miles away. And he did, later that afternoon.

Late that same year, we were in Spence Field and we made an error in judgment. At about 3 o’clock in the morning, I looked over, and I thought one of my bunkmates was moving around — but it turns out it was a bear.

We left breakfast in our packs inside the tent, which is something you should never do and something I’ve never done since. These are memories that stick with us forever.

The President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors reaffirmed a commitment to providing for our nation’s treasures through federal programs, and we also took an important step forward by recommending policies that states, towns and individuals could adopt.

We recommended more land trusts, greenways, city parks and scenic byways — and that led me to work with the Tennessee legislature to create 10,000 miles of state roads and scenic highways with no new billboards, because we knew tourists came to Tennessee for the scenery, not the billboards.

As chairman of the commission, I also called on my fellow governors to establish state level outdoor commissions to stimulate action at the local and state levels on behalf of the outdoors.

The Tennessee state level outdoor commission, Tennesseans Outdoors, sought to “look 40 years down the road, to consider what people will want to do outdoors, and to see that there will be places for them to do those things.”

Specifically, one of the report’s recommendations was for cities to promote urban open space preservation and riverfront planning — and today, all of Tennessee’s major metropolitan areas have taken steps to implement this recommendation.

Like the state of Tennessee, 30 years ago, we looked at ways to help our future generations enjoy the Great American Outdoors like we did.

Over the last 30 years, many of the recommendations have been implemented, and we, as a country, have been able to preserve some of our open spaces and protect our outdoor recreation estate.

One way to illustrate the success of these programs is to take a look at the economic benefit of today’s outdoor economy — in Tennessee, outdoor recreation generates $21.6 billion annually in consumer spending and supports 188,000 direct jobs across the state.

But our work is not done.

As we celebrate National Public Lands Day and the 30th anniversary of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors report, we must continue to take steps to protect and preserve the Great American Outdoors. Personally, I look forward to continuing to work to leave future generations a more beautiful nation to enjoy.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is the state’s senior senator and a native of Maryville.