For years now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has been urging Americans – 80 percent of whom live in cities or suburbs – to take advantage of the outdoor recreational opportunities available to them at USACE’s 422 lake and river projects in 43 states. Many Americans are unaware the Corps is the nation’s largest federal provider of outdoor recreation: 370 million visits a year to Corps projects, 90 percent of which are within 50 miles of a major metropolitan area. In all, USACE manages nearly 12 million acres of public lands and waters at its project sites. This number includes more than 55,000 miles of shoreline, 6,700 miles of trails, almost 94,000 campsites, and more than 3,500 boat ramps.
The Corps has always sought out public and private partners to help get the word out about the wealth and variety of outdoor recreation activities available at its projects. In the spring of 2010, its efforts received a boost when President Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum establishing the 21st Century Strategy for America’s Great Outdoors. “Today … we are losing touch with too many of the places and proud traditions that have helped to make America special,” he wrote. To reverse this slide, the president said, “The nation’s largest land manager, the federal government, must reach out to engage with partners at the local level – farmers, ranchers, community park groups, conservation societies, sportsmen, local agencies, and other stakeholders – to develop innovative programs to develop a conservation agenda for the 21st century.” Within these partnerships, the president wrote, the people who care about America’s Great Outdoors will “identify the places that mean the most to Americans, and leverage the support of the federal government to help these community-driven efforts to succeed.”
What the USACE chief of natural resources, Mary Coulombe, finds most exciting about the new initiative is that it places the federal government in the role of listener. The bottom-up effort is designed to be driven by local communities. “The lead federal agencies – USACE and several others – are going out and asking communities and local groups and states and private organizations: ‘How can the federal government help you achieve your goals for conservation and getting people outdoors?’” she said. In a number of listening sessions around the country, USACE and its partners in federal land management have been getting an earful.
“We’re hearing over and over and over again,” Coulombe said, “that there is a really strong interest in creating and maintaining places for outdoor recreation that are accessible, particularly to people in urban areas, and that provide a diversity of outdoor recreational opportunities.” Several sessions devoted specifically to youth have been particularly revealing, she said: “It seems many urban kids are not even aware of where they can go outdoors.”
For USACE, the stakes couldn’t be higher in this new federal initiative, whose goals intersect with those of its recreation program. Ultimately, when the listening sessions result in a strategy, USACE intends to integrate the federal objectives into its own long-term strategy, the National Recreation Road Map distributed by USACE Headquarters in 2009.
“In 2008,” explained Coulombe, “we were confronted with the problem of not having enough money to keep all our recreation areas operating at their current capacity, and possibly even looking at closures of some of our areas. That was a big wake-up call.” USACE, acknowledging that its programs were unsustainable given unpredictable trends in appropriations, launched an investigation into potential program elements – partnerships, visitor reporting, communications, shoreline management, staffing and labor analysis, and others – that could help it to develop a long-term strategy for the agency’s civil recreation future. While the plan is still under development, USACE estimates that some elements of it will be available in 2011 and used to help develop the fiscal year 2013 budget.
No matter what happens with the federal budget, USACE will continue to foster the partnerships that have provided it with far more resources for managing lakes and recreation sites than the agency could have managed on its own. After forming a “handshake partnership” with USACE in 2006, for example, the Lake Ouachita Citizens Focus Committee – a non-profit dedicated to enhancing the management of one of Arkansas’ most beloved recreational lakes – took its $10,000 in seed money and leveraged more than $1 million in grants and donations from the public and private sectors – funds that have gone to the development of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT), a 20-mile stretch that winds among the mountains and coves near the Shangri-La Resort on the lake’s south shore.
Likewise, the Friends of W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, an organization that supports the Corps’ lake in northwest North Carolina, has leveraged its partnership with the Corps into several million dollars in enhancements and improvements, including trails, waterfowl enhancement programs, community events, and even the construction of the Forest Edge Community Amphitheater, a 900-seat facility, outfitted with a complete professional sound and lighting system, that hosts outdoor concerts, theater productions, festivals, reunions, corporate functions, and arts and environmental education and training.
“When these outside groups get really involved and interested in a particular lake,” said Coulombe, “it’s amazing what can happen. And that’s probably one of the ways we’re going to have to try to cope with our future budget situations – to interest more involvement from stakeholders in the management of our lakes.”
Boating Safety: Studying a New Life Jacket Policy
America’s Great Outdoors, a new federal initiative to spark public involvement in outdoor recreation and the conservation of public lands, has already produced many public listening sessions across the nation. Among many participants from urban areas, said Mary Coulombe, the USACE chief of natural resources, a primary concern about outdoor recreation has been the safety of water-based recreation. And rightly so: For example, at four USACE lakes in northern Mississippi, there have been 326 water-related fatalities since 1940.
Noting that more than 90 percent of those who drown during recreational activities on USACE waters were not wearing a life jacket at the time, the Corps, prior to the summer season of 2009, began a pilot project on these four north Mississippi lakes: Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid, and Grenada. At these lakes, Coast Guard-approved life jackets were made mandatory for all children under 16 years of age; anyone being pulled by a boat (i.e., tubers or skiers); anyone in a boat smaller than 16 feet in length; anyone in a boat between 16 and 26 feet long while under main engine power (i.e., not using a trolling motor); and anyone swimming outside a designated beach area.
The objective of the new regulation, explained Coulombe, is to save lives, not write tickets. The idea is that once people become accustomed to wearing life jackets; they will realize that a life jacket is no obstacle to fun in the water. “During the first year of policy implementation, they were able to elevate the wear rates without writing one citation,” she said. “The policy gave us new opportunities to educate the public about the value of life jackets.”
The final results of the three-year study will be available in 2012, but early indications are that the new policy is a success. Seventy-eight percent of the boaters at these four lakes are wearing their life jackets – a huge improvement over the 8 percent voluntary wear rate nationally.
This article first appeared in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong, 2010-2011 Edition.