John Jarvis believes Montanans are on to something when it comes to conservation.
"Montanans have stepped up for decades to help protect this extraordinary place," the National Park Service director told about 325 people who came to the first listening session of President Barack Obama's "America's Great Outdoors Initiative."
The president announced the initiative on April 16 with the goals of reconnecting Americans to the outdoors and building upon state, local, private and tribal conservation initiatives targeted at conservation of both public and private land.
The first listening session on the presidential initiative took place in Missoula on Wednesday.
"We're here to collect the best ideas, not impose some grand federal scheme," said Nancy Sutley, who heads the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
With that admonition, the crowd spilt into groups of about 40, which with the assistance of moderators like Jarvis then worked through a series of four questions.
What works in Montana when it comes to conservation, and can that model be replicated elsewhere?
What are the obstacles and challenges facing conservation efforts?
What role can the federal government play in conservation at the local level?
And what other tools could be used to foster better partnerships, as well as efforts to get more people invested in the outdoors?
Jarvis was quick to point out that the federal government can sometimes be one of the obstacles posed by the second question.
"We need to know how we mess things up," he said with a grin. "Are we too complicated? Are we too slow?"
With the questions on the table, Montanans spoke up, fervently but respectfully, criss-crossing political and cultural barriers.
The undercurrent of much of the discussion centered on Montanans' inherent connection with both land and place.
That, Jackie Corday said, is the reason Missoula was able to pass major bond issues in support of buying land on the North Hills, Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo.
"People really have a sense of place," said Corday, who manages the city's open space program.
Even people who don't get into the hills much voted for the bond issues.
"They wanted to know those hills were protected," she said.
Fostering that sense of place, Jarvis said, is key to reconnecting Americans to the outdoors.
Noting that 80 percent of Americans live in urban settings, he told a story about a recent field trip that took inner-city kids from Los Angeles to a place they'd never been - the Pacific Ocean.
"We need to break down the barriers between the 80-20 split," he said.
That barrier is crossed, said Bill Geer, when partnerships are forged in advance of conservation efforts. It's also a matter of having a seat for everyone at the table.
"People really do want to work together," said Geer, policy initiatives manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Even working in partnerships on smaller issues - say, Missoula's open space program - people can have an enormous effect when enough such projects are under way.
"It's local people taking on responsibility," said Tim Aldrich, who has served on the open space committee. "Those smaller efforts then create a much larger mosaic."
The federal government can aid such efforts, but can also be a hindrance when it can't move quickly enough due to complex layers of bureaucracy and regulations.
"We can work quickly at the state and local level, but we really need the leverage that federal money can provide," said Caroline Byrd of the Nature Conservancy. "Sometimes that doesn't happen because federal funding moves so slowly."
There's also an irritating inconsistency in federal agencies, several people said. Rae McKay said she and other off-road vehicle users in the Seeley Lake area spent years working with Forest Service officials in an effort to establish a riding area.
"You spend 10 years working on something, then the personnel changes and you have to go all the way back to the start," she said.
That, Jarvis, has been a failure of the federal personnel system, which was patterned on the military, where people move from job to job every few years.
"So we need to promote consistency," he said.
Stewart Brandborg, an elder of the environmental movement and a force behind the 1964 Wilderness Act, said federal officials also need to be more stand-up, willing to make solid, science-based decisions in the face of the "false gods of the tea party."
Ali Duval decried the debilitating effect of partisan politics on conservation efforts that have already bridged the partisan gap at the local level.
"It's depressing, and we need to get past this partisan deal," said Duval.
The discussion wasn't focused solely on conservation efforts, though. Part of Obama's effort is aimed at instilling an outdoor ethic in a generation of children who've grown up with screens instead of streams.
"We need to be starting with kids at a much younger age," said a young Zach Porter. "We also need to create programs where kids can get their college loans forgiven by doing stewardship work."
In fact, the federal government already has such a program, but it's rarely used, Jarvis said.
"We need to use that more effectively," he said.
Elizabeth Costello, a college student working for the Montana Conservation Corps, said she grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. There were plenty of service programs that got young people involved, but they often focused on urban projects such as museums.
"That's all good, but we could also refocus on programs that put kids outside," Costello said. "That's where we have to get to work."
The listening sessions will continue across the country for several months, and Jarvis said a report will be on the president's desk by Nov. 15.
Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.