By Governors Chris Gregoire (Wash.) and Gary Herbert (Utah)
The American West has loomed large in our Nation's imagination ever since Lewis and Clark started sending stories back East about its geography, stunning landscapes, plants and wildlife. Today it is tourists, retirees, adventure lovers and entrepreneurs who are the explorers.
Outdoor recreation employed an estimated 6.5 million people and contributed $730 billion to the national economy, according to a 2006 report by the Outdoor Industry Foundation. In 12 of the Western states, outdoor industries employed 1.3 million people and contributed $143 billion to the region's economy. The economics alone are a good reason to protect the West's natural assets and enhance tourism, but there is another, perhaps less obvious reason, and that is our nation's youth.
Recent studies have shown that today's kids are less likely to be exposed to the wonders of the outdoors and are more likely to be indoors, connected to smart phones, Web sites and video games. We need to encourage and inspire more of our youth to occasionally unplug and get outdoors – for perhaps the first time – to hear the roar of a great river, catch a big fish or climb all the way to the top of a mountain.
Just one experience like that can be enough to hook kids and their parents on the great outdoors for a lifetime. Researchers, businesses and community leaders, teachers and parents agree: exposure to the outdoors offers young people health benefits, skill-building and new career opportunities. But just as important, these memorable experiences also help to inspire volunteerism and greater stewardship of our parks and public lands for the next generation to enjoy.
Working with our colleagues in the Western Governors' Association we launched the Get Out West! initiative last year with getting more kids and families outdoors as one of our primary goals. We also are encouraging greater volunteerism to improve our parks, trails and waterways, and we're working to improve local economies that depend on recreation and tourism. We have enlisted volunteers, businesses, and non-governmental organizations, and we are partnering with recreation user groups to work with government and industry to build and maintain recreational opportunities for everyone to enjoy.
Public-private partnership programs, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, have already helped protect places like Discovery Park in Seattle and Riverfront Park in Spokane, Washington. In Utah, the LWCF has funded more than 400 projects with a 50-50 matching reimbursement program. These types of programs have been critical for rural communities seeking to build recreation facilities, community parks and ball fields.
Sportsmen, conservationists and local governments are all collaborating to identify ways to preserve prized hunting grounds and local treasures through new protections for rivers, parks, monuments and wilderness areas. Communities have launched No-Child-Left-Inside programs to introduce school kids to the natural wonders and careers they might otherwise have never discovered.
All of these efforts and many other local initiatives need and deserve all of our support. Working together, we can only build upon the lure of the American West, to the benefit of our children and to our physical and economic health.
Washington Governor Chris Gregoire is Chair of the Western Governors' Association and Utah Governor Gary Herbert is WGA's Vice Chair. As part of her chairmanship, Gov. Gregoire launched the "Get Out West!" initiative to highlight the connection of outdoor recreation and tourism to the health of local economies and communities.
This article was first published in Headwaters News (January 12,2012)