To the American public, the water resources over which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is charged with stewardship – 422 lake and river projects in 43 states, comprising a total of about 12 million square miles of public lands and waters – are perhaps most conspicuously notable for their economic importance: They provide hydropower, irrigation, drinking water, flood protection, and navigability. USACE has always recognized, in addition to these benefits, the value of public lands in terms of health and vitality. Through its recreation program, USACE strives to connect Americans with these resources, providing opportunity in the form of trails, boat ramps, fishing piers, visitor centers, campsites, and other facilities.
Early 21st century statistics have lent a feeling of urgency to this effort: 80 percent of Americans now live in cities, and over the past 20 years, adults, children, and adolescents alike have suffered staggering increases in related health problems: physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.
In the spring of 2010, these circumstances helped motivate President Barack Obama’s launch of a grassroots campaign to reconnect Americans to their public lands. “Few pursuits are more satisfying to the spirit,” he said upon launching the initiative, “than discovering the greatness of America’s outdoors.”
As steward of millions of acres of public lands that receive more than 370 million visits a year, USACE has been an integral partner in the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative. Conducted at the community level, with a nationwide series of listening and decision-making sessions involving more than 10,000 Americans, AGO aims to bring forth community solutions for conserving natural resources and for getting more people outdoors – both for recreation and employment – on public and private lands.
Recreation’s Big Tent
The AGO listening sessions produced 10 distinct goals toward which communities and their partners would strive – several of which mirror the existing aims of USACE’s recreation program. Through existing and new partnerships, USACE has been able to add to the results of its recreation program: raising awareness of and expanding access to opportunities while protecting and renewing natural resources.
For example, when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar established the National Water Trails System (NWTS) in early 2012, he established them as a class of national recreational trails under existing federal law.
According to Mary Coulombe, USACE’s chief of natural resources, one of the criteria for becoming a National Water Trail is that it be managed as a community resource. “What’s different about these trails,” she said, “is that they are public/private partnerships.” One of the most popular trails in the system, the Mississippi River Great River Water Trail, is a 121-mile trail that ends at the St. Louis riverfront. While USACE has the lead for managing the trail – developing rest areas, campsites, interpretive exhibits, and wildlife viewing areas – it is just one of many public and private partners in an effort that includes local governments, businesses, and organizations such as the American Canoe Association.
Partnerships have long been key to the USACE strategy for expanding its outreach. In August 2012, the organization teamed with Bass Pro Shops® – an outfitter serving 75 million customers a year, many of whom fish, hunt, and boat in and around USACE-managed lakes and waterways – to help improve wildlife and fisheries habitat, develop outdoor recreation opportunities, raise public awareness about invasive species, and save lives through water safety outreach efforts. USACE was also one of seven federal agencies to sign a memorandum of understanding with Catch A Special Thrill (C.A.S.T.) Foundation for Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides fishing and boating events designed to accommodate children with a wide range of special needs.
C.A.S.T. also conducts the Take a Warrior Fishing Program, designed to support military personnel and their families. In May 2012, C.A.S.T. provided a free fishing opportunity for more than 20 veterans and their families on Eastman Lake Recreation Area, a USACE flood control and irrigation reservoir in the Sierra Nevada foothills. This fall, three more events were held involving more than 100 veterans and their families.
The USACE recreation program maintains an active commitment to service members and veterans, setting aside facilities for servicemen and women, sponsoring events, and recruiting among them for work at USACE facilities – an activity that conforms neatly with one of the AGO Initiative’s primary goals: to provide quality jobs, career pathways, and service opportunities. On the public lands under its management, USACE has hired former military personnel, many of them with a service-connected disability, as park rangers, maintenance workers, lock managers, wildlife managers, and other positions.