The United States has had a long and varied relationship with outdoor recreation. As a nation of tough pioneers who carved civilization out of wilderness, it took some time for Americans to embrace the idea of holding onto the last pieces of undeveloped wild land rather than conquering them.
John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, exhorted the nation in the 1880s to spend time in the mountains and valleys. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you,” he said. President Theodore Roosevelt, a sickly child who improved his health with an active outdoor life, also helped lead a new movement toward what we now call outdoor recreation in all its many forms./p>
Recreation wasn’t mentioned in the 1933 Congressional act that created TVA. But in January, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt—Teddy’s cousin—made his famous “more than a power company” speech to Congress, directing TVA to look at comprehensive recreation planning for the Tennessee Valley.
“It is coming to be realized more and more that in the improvement of our American civilization we cannot stop at hospitals and schools any more than we can confine ourselves to strictly economic subjects. Recreation in its broad sense is a definite factor in the improvement of the bodies and minds of our future citizens.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt on TVA, 1940
“So for the first time, recreation and TVA were linked, and we were off and running,” says Bucky Edmondson, director of TVA Natural Resources. “Of course, the war put a gap in that planning, but once it was over and troops came home, there was a real interest in the outdoors and recreation.”
At TVA, recreation areas generally fall into three categories: lake-based, such as fishing and boating; land-based, such as trails and campgrounds; and stream-access sites. Throughout the Valley, TVA manages 293,000 acres of public land and 11,000 miles of shoreline.
Fishing, hiking, birdwatching and swimming were always enjoyable. But when did we realize they’re also incredibly valuable?
Seventy years ago, there was no need to discuss public access to waterways because all the residents of an area generally knew each other, so a person might simply go to his neighbor’s farm and ask if he could park there while he went fishing. But in the years after World War II, which saw increasing growth in metropolitan areas and the disappearance of thousands of acres of open farmland to development, the need arose for infrastructure that would provide reliable public access.
In 1960, Congress created the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, launching national surveys on recreation every few years. These provided a wealth of data that had never been gathered before and first exposed the enormous economic impact of recreation. After that, grant funds began coming to organizations to build public access infrastructure.
Now, leaders in federal, state and local government are fully aware of the crucial economic value that lakes, swim beaches, stream access sites, fishing spots, trails and campsites bring to the communities around them.
“We have world-class recreation here in the Valley,” says Clay Guerry, TVA recreation strategy specialist. “We have assets that are known beyond the borders of the United States. Just think about the Appalachian Trail, how much has been written about it. It crosses two of TVA’s dams, Fontana and Watauga. One of the best shelters on the trail, the ‘Fontana Hilton’, is on TVA land. The Ocoee whitewater, where the Olympics were held—everyone into whitewater knows the Ocoee. Trout fishermen all over the world know about South Holston. Bass fishing competitions—look at the international media coverage that comes out of that.”
However, enjoying the outdoors doesn’t require an expensive fly-fishing setup, a pricey mountain bike or kayak, or extensive physical strength and abilities. A large study a few years ago reveals that the most popular outdoor activities for Americans are still the simplest: walking, picnicking and just looking at the scenery.
“TVA offers ADA-accessible trails and areas throughout the Tennessee Valley,” adds Guerry. “One example is the new fishing area on the South Holston Dam Reservation that was popular as soon as it was finished. Places like these allow people of all physical abilities to join in the activities they enjoy.”
National Public Lands Day also provides an opportunity for everyone who enjoys the outdoors to take a little time to give back. Numerous cleanup events give participants — even little ones — a chance to leave public lands cleaner than they found them.
“Litter, especially disposable plastic, unfortunately is one of those things that we’ll always be fighting,” says Suzanne Fisher, TVA senior program manager who coordinates many volunteer efforts. “Part of our mission of stewardship is to work constantly at keeping public lands and waters clean. However, we can’t do it alone—it’s also an important part of our mission to recruit volunteers, to inspire youngsters to also care about the environment and to have them join us in that mission. We will always welcome every pair of hands—not just on special days, but all year round.”
Last year for NPLD, volunteers pitched in on public lands in all 50 states. At least 100,000 volunteers donated 450,000 hours to accomplish an estimated $11 million value of volunteer work. This year promises to be even bigger—and we invite you to be part of it.