Kim Elliman Interviews Thomas Strickland

Photo Credit: Jerry Monkman



Kim Elliman Talks with Tom Strickland

Led by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the U.S. Department of the Interior is the nation’s principal conservation agency, providing access to our natural and cultural heritage and protecting America's treasures for future generations. In his capacity as Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Thomas L. Strickland oversees and coordinates policy decisions for the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is also the chief of staff to Secretary Salazar, with whom he was a founder and board member of Great Outdoors Colorado, a statewide agency created in 1992 which invests lottery funds in parks and open space.

OSI CEO Kim Elliman spoke recently with Assistant Secretary Strickland about full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protecting land in a lean economic climate, and how conservation can abate climate change.

OSI: How do you see us getting to full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund by 2014?

TS: The Secretary of the Interior has been very clear and direct about what he believes has been a 45-year broken promise with respect to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The commitment to the American people was that some portion of the value of the resources that were being extracted by one generation would be saved and put back into the land for the benefit of future generations. And almost in every year in the succeeding 45 years that has not been honored.

LWCF has only been funded at its full authorization level once because Congress has not appropriated the dollars. So, it has been a broken promise and it’s one that the Secretary is doing everything he can to correct for the American people. We have strong support in Congress, and we are hopeful to achieve full funding of LWCF by 2014, if not sooner. And we will need the support of allies like the Open Space Institute and others to make this happen.

Last year the U.S. received approximately $24 billion in royalties from lands managed by the Department of the Interior for oil and gas development on public lands. So, had the will been there and the nexus been drawn more tightly in the original legislation, it would have been easy for Congress to fully fund LWCF at its $900 million per year authorization level. It’s a moral obligation to the Secretary, as well as an extraordinarily effective strategy to preserve and protect the most valuable landscapes, at the federal, state and local levels.

Funding and Great Outdoors America

OSI: After you have given the numbers, 4 percent (note: $900 million is approximately four percent of $24 billion) does not sound like a terribly big number.

TS: No, it’s a very modest down payment. If you were to adjust that for inflation from when it was first set at $900 million it would be something north of $3 billion annually. We may be pursuing a broader agenda—a Great Outdoors America strategy—beyond just full funding of current levels of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, so stay tuned for that as it unfolds.

If you were to go back 18 years there a group of us in Colorado led by the Secretary, when he was head of the Department of Natural Resources there, who saw a similar broken promise that the legislature made to the people of Colorado.

They were promised that the proceeds of the lottery would go toward funding the great outdoors in Colorado, and the legislature broke that promise. They put the money instead into other worthwhile needs, like prison construction, albeit not what was promised. We couldn’t get the legislature to keep its promise and that was the impetus for Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO).

Seventeen years later, that has been one of the most successful programs in the country. Over $500 million has been directly invested out of GOCO and then with the matching dollars, which is a two-to-one match of probably 1.5 billion dollars, I think it has been estimated 600,000 acres of land has been protected, including incredibly important open space between Denver and Colorado Springs. It spawned a whole plethora of local initiatives to raise dedicated dollars so that the communities would be able to come in and have matching dollars to seek GOCO grants.

So, it has had a broadening effect throughout the state. I think that Colorado is one of the great examples of what you can do with these kinds of partnerships. These partnerships have burgeoned with respect to these dollars. That is what we hope to promote, something comparable on a nationwide level.

OSI: Yes, I see that one of the real successes of GOCO is the consistency of the funding, because you see a lot of episodic funding out there and I think part of the success of GOCO is that people always knew that there was a partner in Great Outdoors Colorado, that there could be mutual, reciprocal leverage.

TS: We’ve got a great leader in Secretary Salazar, who has a proven record of making things happen, and his eye is on the ball here at the Department of the Interior and I think we are going to work very hard starting with full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but looking more broadly as well.

What are our Treasured Landscapes?

OSI: Secretary Salazar talks a lot about Treasured Landscapes. What does he mean by that? Can you give me some examples of what public land would look like under a Treasured Landscape approach?

TS: Well, Treasured Landscapes, broadly understood—which is how the Secretary intends it to mean—involves iconic natural landscapes, like Yosemite and Glacier and the Everglades. It also means important historic sites, like the United Airlines Flight 93 site where he has worked very hard to acquire land to create a park there in time for the 10th anniversary of that tragedy. It means the opportunity for wildlife refuges to be strengthened and perhaps new ones added to our system as we see the effects of climate change. It means restoration of some of our most important large ecosystems, like the Everglades, the Chesapeake, the Great Lakes, the Bay Delta and the Appalachian Range.

We are in an era now where we know that we have individual landscapes, or individual parcels that are critically important to particular parks or national forest inholdings or fish and wildlife refuges but we need to think more broadly.

Climate change is bringing in part a real premium to play relative to ecosystem management and looking at landscapes more broadly and how the environment works out over broader landscapes. And that is going to put an emphasis on partnerships, with organizations like OSI, it’s going to put a premium on working with private land owners through acquiring conservation easements and this can be achieved in part by linking our various fiscal assets together through some creative approaches. But we are going to need to look and learn and study more broadly the science, the biology of climate change.

So, Treasured Landscapes also includes specific iconic natural landscapes. It includes important cultural and historic assets. Treasured Landscapes can also involve urban parks and restoring riparian corridors. And there are a number of pieces to it and I think, broadly understood, it could advance agendas on a wide range of fronts.

Climate Change and Land Conservation

OSI: Obviously with climate change getting a lot of press and a lot of attention, land acquisition has taken a back seat to it, but they are two parts of a whole solution.

TS: Right. Right now the Department of the Interior chairs the task force on the restoration of the Everglades. And there we have a national park, a national preserve and wildlife refuges. There are state lands and then there are private lands. We are trying to achieve the restoration of an ecosystem that was destroyed by man. That’s a treasured landscape that involves every bit of our talent to forge the partnerships between the various levels of government and between the land owners there. We are bringing the best science to the table and we also have important constituencies with the tribal nations down there, the Seminoles and the Miccosukees, so that is a classic example of a treasured landscape where restoring that landscape, restoring that ecosystem, is both expensive and complicated and requires skill at the government level, funding and good science.

The Value of Land Acquisition and Conservation

OSI: These are tough economic times, as you know, and basically every agency of government below the federal government is cutting back on land acquisition because of constrained municipal and state budgets. They may think land acquisition is an expense that they can probably defer. Do you see any way in your efforts through LWCF or other initiatives that you can help promote what has been a wonderful 15-year trend line for more municipal and state bonding and dedicated funding for land acquisition?

TS: I would challenge OSI, as well as our department and all those that are interested in these issues, to be more focused and strategic about getting the message out about the economic importance and the economic generating capacity of our landscapes and our great outdoors.

The outdoor industry association has estimated that outdoor recreation contributes $730 billion annually to the economy. When you look at bird watching, sporting activities, hunting and fishing, as well as other activities, it’s an enormously important part of our economy. Let’s look at Colorado, for example. One of our strongest selling points for business in Colorado, and for attracting a talented work force, is the quality of life in Colorado, and Great Outdoors Colorado has probably done more to benefit the quality of life in Colorado than anything else in the last 17 years. By doing that it has made the experience of living in Colorado and the competitive stature of Colorado that much stronger, in terms of having clean air, clean water, protecting our special places, having lots of open space and large, intact ecosystems.

One of the interesting things about the Everglades project is that the right question is not, ‘Can we afford to clean it up?’ The right question is, ‘Can we afford not to clean it up?’

There was an interesting story on the front page of the newspaper in a small town, right at the intersection of Oklahoma and Missouri, and it’s a former mining town that was devastated by zinc mining and other kinds of activities, and really it’s kind of a dead zone now.

The article was about what was done to the landscape there that really destroyed the economic base of the town, and now it’s virtually impossible to resurrect. That’s an extreme example of what happens when we don’t take care of the places where we live and work. The argument that we make about protecting our land and acquiring strategic land holdings is that it is essential to continue to have a livable and healthy environment, as well as a strong and vital economy.

Our outdoor recreation and economic development cannot be exported overseas. Our national parks system, which is about to get a huge boost with the Ken Burns film, both our historic parks and our natural iconic parks are some of the most treasured places that we have. We had Ken Burns come speak to a group of us at our retreat and Ken posed a question: ‘Can you imagine how much poorer we would be as a country if we did not have our national parks system? Or our wildlife refuge system?’

Think about that on a local level, if we didn’t have our local parks or local open space. It is what helps in part define this country. We need to tell the story of economic activity and job creation that comes out of this as well as the intrinsic importance of it. We also have an opportunity in these times to acquire land when values are down. We can get more bang for our buck.

It’s been in times of some of our greatest economic stress that we have stepped up and done some of the most important conservation. Think about in the middle of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln protected the land that became Yosemite National Park. And then, of course, the most extraordinary example in American history is the effort during the Great Depression with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Three million Americans participated and had jobs and some sense of dignity. That could have been a road building program, it could have been a brick laying program, but instead it was a conservation program. It reflected the values of President Franklin Roosevelt. It got the country back to work and it also left a lasting investment in our country. You can go to hundreds of sites around the country and still see these extraordinary trails and lodges and other things that were done by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

In Colorado we’ve got many examples, including, Red Rocks Amphitheater, which is one of the greatest places ever to enjoy music in an incredible setting. We reach down and define ourselves in times of challenge and stress and that’s no excuse for not doing the right thing on these fronts.

OSI: Between Ken Burns and Douglas Brinkley, there has been a lot on the benefit of parks and the history thereof. To what extent has that inspired the Secretary and all of you at the Interior to think about monuments and designations and how to link private and public land protection?

TS: I think a lot of important work has been done in that respect to protect special places through Presidential Executive Order. Theodore Roosevelt used it often. Doug Brinkley came over and we had a great visit with the Secretary recently and he brings a unique historical perspective as one of the country’s greatest historians. Reminding us all of Theodore Roosevelt’s vision is very important. Teddy Roosevelt was the first President, I believe, to use that authority and it had a dramatic effect as he protected things like the Grand Canyon and other places around the country.

We will thoughtfully review candidates and candidate areas, and no decisions have been made, but I think the recent action in the Public Lands Omnibus Bill to set aside additional wilderness, to create the Landscape Conservation System … we’ve got important work to do within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), now that they’ve got that very important designation to build out the culture within the BLM, to value and manage those assets in ways that protect maybe a broader range of activities than the traditional resource development multiple use approach that has often characterized the management of those lands.

So, and I think quite frankly, one of the challenges we’ve had, as we have come in following the previous administration, is to restore a better balance between the protection of these resources and the exploitation of them. We will continue to have significant development of these public lands for a wide range of uses, but I think the balance was out of tilt when we came in here and I think that the public has made that clear and that was one of the messages President Obama campaigned on and one of the things that Secretary Salazar was very emphatic about when he was in the Senate. We’ll look at the whole range of authority that the President and the Secretary has available to them, but no decisions at this point on where and how to use them.

Getting the Message Out

OSI: How do you get the word out?  There are very crowded public agendas and a lot of chatter, as you know, about lots of things that don’t resemble climate change, let alone land acquisition. So how can we, conservation groups, and others in the public promote this message?

TS: We know how democracy works, so voices that are silent are often viewed as neutrality or disinterest. When we think about the constituencies that we have, to protect our Treasured Landscapes and the number of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, who use these assets, we have a remarkable opportunity to bring to their attention the impacts of climate change. We really have a nation in peril. We talk about that in our health care arena, we talk about it in our educational arena, but I think we ought to have that debate in terms of our national resources arena.

When you think about our song America the Beautiful, it’s all about the geography of this country as well as the idea of democracy, so if we could convey to people what the stakes are and the fact that now is the time, it’s really one of those pivotal points in history when we have the leadership in the White House and in the Cabinet and in Congress.

I think people are saying we need to move on a variety of fronts. Health care is incredibly important and renewable energy is incredibly important and dealing with climate change, protecting and preserving and enhancing the physical landscapes, the wildlife habitat landscapes of this country—there is great support for those things.

Just recently we saw polling, specifically with regard to the National Parks System, that asked registered voters nationwide, Republican or Democrat, whether or not they are likely to support someone running for office if the candidate is a strong supporter of protecting and investing in our national parks. On both sides of the aisle the numbers are overwhelming, and, in fact, if you ask registered Republicans in this one poll if they would be more likely to support a candidate that is supportive of protecting and investing in our national parks, the support was, I think, over 80 percent. If you ask them if they would be more likely to support someone who was ‘good’ on the environment, it was more like 50 percent.

We need to specifically engage the public about the needs and the challenges. One of the things the land trusts have done so spectacularly well is working with the agricultural community and the partnerships that have been forged with ranchers and farmers around protecting a landscape. Those kinds of partnerships help us move beyond some of the more polarized debates we’ve had.

I think, notwithstanding the difficult economic circumstances we are in, we’re still a very strong country compared to our capacity back in the time of the Great Depression or around the turn of the 19th and the 20th century.

We are way better situated to make these investments now than we were in those years, and the sense of crisis and urgency we should feel is that much greater because our population is over 300 million, we’ve got the impact of climate change, and, really, years of neglect. So all that comes together to say now is the time, and I think we just have to have more focused effort at getting the message out.



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