Across the country, people are looking for something to do on a free day. Some want to lie in bed and read a book. Some would rather spend the day on the computer or television playing video games. Others like to get outside. Having fun is indeed on the mind of the person who’s going out to enjoy the day. There are a lot of people who truly enjoy going out to hike, ride horses, fish, camp, or just relax and enjoy nature. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is part of that lifestyle for millions of people as evidenced by the fact that USACE is the top federal provider of outdoor recreation.
“Congress authorized recreation as part of the Corps’ mission under several authorities,” said Mary Coulombe, USACE’s chief of operations for Natural Resources. As far back as the Flood Control Act of 1944 authorized USACE to construct, maintain, and operate public parks and recreational facilities. Subsequent legislation broadened these authorities and has facilitated recreation, partnerships, and volunteerism.
Recreation, for USACE, doesn’t mean a big theme park with fancy rides. With nearly 12 million acres under its stewardship, recreation means open spaces where families and individuals can visit to get back in touch with nature. Nearly 90 percent of the national population lives within 50 miles of a USACE facility. Because of that proximity, Corps facilities are often the ones most available to families and individuals who seek the opportunity to get out and enjoy a day away from the grind of the city.
“Corps water projects, reservoirs, lakes, and rivers are where people and water meet. Many people can get away for a day, at a reasonable cost, and relax and enjoy the outdoors,” Coulombe said.
Across the country, USACE facilities provide safe and accessible camping, day-use areas, trails, visitor centers, and more. The majority of users come for the day, and day-use areas can include boat ramps, picnic areas, soccer fields, and swim beaches. Camping is a very popular destination use for visitors. Camping sites can be reserved ahead of time for as long as 14 days. Thousands of volunteers help at USACE parks and serve as campground hosts, provide visitor information, maintain trails and park areas, and help during special events. In 2010, volunteers contributed more than $40 million in labor. In addition, USACE has parks that are leased to cities, counties, and states. There are more than 150 state parks on USACE lands broadening recreation options for visitors.
USACE recreation programs go hand in hand with environmental stewardship. President Barack Obama launched the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative in April 2010 as a way to create a national dialogue about America’s Great Outdoors. The initiative has two major goals: Get Americans outdoors and conserve important outdoor spaces for future generations. Instead of a one-size-fits-all direction from the government, the initiative brings together ranchers, farmers and forest landowners, sportsmen and women, state and local government leaders, tribal leaders, public-lands experts, conservationists, youth leaders, business representatives, and others to learn about some of the smart, creative ways communities are working to encourage the public, especially young people, to get outdoors and participate in conserving outdoor spaces.
The initiative involves a number of federal agencies. USACE is a vital part of the success of the initiative. Agencies work together to facilitate better delivery of programs to the public, but more importantly provide support for local and regional governments and non-governmental organizations to build and maintain their own programs.
This integrated effort aims to help people across the nation become more actively involved in the management of the resources in their area. It will also help restore key resources on both public and private lands. One of the main goals is to help individuals and families, particularly those in urban areas, reconnect with outdoor spaces and opportunities close to home.
“If we don’t make these connections, we risk the support of future generations, support of conservation, and quality environments in their area,” Coulombe explained. “So, it’s not just a focus on today, but recognition that we need to create and foster an appreciation for the outdoors for the future.”
USACE hosts more than 360 million visits a year at Corps-managed lakes, parks, and campsites. USACE projects provide one-third of all freshwater fishing in the United States and 15 percent of freshwater boating. The Corps also manages 4.3 million acres of important habitats with an emphasis on waterfowl use or potential use and seven of the top 10 migratory bird flyways in the nation cross USACE lands.
Because of the high number of visitors, USACE facilities are important to the local economies of many communities. More than 500 private concessionaires, with $1 billion in assets, provide support services and facilities, such as marinas, bait shops, and grocery stores. It’s estimated that visitors to USACE recreation sites spend approximately $18 billion annually on trip-related expenses and support about 350,000 jobs nationwide.
“We engage youth and other educational institutions at our projects,” Coulombe explained. “We provide in-class materials for teachers and in-the-field activities like fishing demonstrations, water sports activities. We will be looking for ways to expand the youth education programs like the Junior Ranger, outdoor classrooms, internships, and volunteer youth.”
USACE projects provide important open and green space, especially in areas where development is expanding into rural areas. According to Coulombe, in some areas, USACE projects are the only green spaces between a large body of water and a city, suburb, or other development. Green spaces are also important for wildlife habitat and water quality.
For anyone who wants to visit a USACE project, it’s as easy as either running a simple search online or going to the Corps Lake Gateway website to find the closest lake. Some areas have fees for day use – swimming and picnicking, boat ramps, and camping. The fees are nominal and the websites provide fee information.
USACE just released its national Recreation Strategic Plan. The plan outlines strategies, goals, and objectives for the USACE recreation program into the future. The plan provides a framework for continuing public access to USACE lands, lakes, and waters, building new partnerships, investing wisely in our facilities to serve both today’s and tomorrow’s visitors.
This article first appeared in the 2011-2012 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces publication.