Thousands of uninsured Western North Carolina residents will soon benefit from the Affordable Care Act, despite most people still being confused over what health insurance reform truly entails, according local health experts.
We have been hearing a lot lately about President Barack Obama’s charm offensive. He has been traveling a short distance from the White House to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress, including Republicans. He now seems more interested in developing relationships and a rapport with members on both sides of the aisle whose votes he can use in the days ahead.
Recreation, conservation and preservation-minded environmentalists from all over Western North Carolina streamed into the Ferguson Auditorium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College for a chance to influence federal policy.
“They’re calling it a listening session,” said Abe Nail, 56, of Globe. “I can’t imagine the Bush administration doing anything like that.”
Judi Parker, 63, also of Globe –– which is tucked into the middle of the Pisgah National Forest just south of Blowing Rock –– marveled at the crowd of people swarming around her.
“I’m just glad so many people came,” she said.
Nail and Parker were two of more than 500 people who came to participate in a project inaugurated by President Barack Obama in April. Administration officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Interior –– all of which have a stake in overseeing America’s public lands –– have joined together for a road show to listen to the people their policies impact.
Paul Carlson, executive director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee based in Franklin, said the administration’s willingness to send senior officials to the listening sessions showed it was serious about supporting locally-based conservation efforts.
“Those are pretty senior guys and for them to be out there taking that kind of time to listen to us is pretty impressive,” Carlson said.
The group has toured a dozen cities already to meet with stakeholder groups and talk about how the federal government can do a better job expanding access to outdoor recreation and land conservation in everything from city parks to national forests.
Will Shafroth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior, is one of a handful of officials who have been to every city so far. Shafroth said the trip has given him a lift during a trying period.
“It’s invigorating because with the dark cloud of the oil spill in the Gulf, which has been a real drag on our sense of what’s happening, you come into a place like this and it’s just full of energy,” Shafroth said.
The strain of the past months showed on Shafroth’s face, and during his opening remarks he managed to forget where he was, thanking the people of “Asheville, Tennessee” for the turnout.
Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy handled the slip graciously and led the audience –– which was made up of a wide range of characters from AmeriCorps volunteers to non-profit executive directors to local politicians –– in a rousing call and response that confirmed the real venue for the event.
The value of the listening session as a policy tool may not yet be determined, but its worth as a morale building exercise was evident from the start.
Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, invoked the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt in his remarks and set the tone for the dialogue later in the day.
“We know now that the solutions are not going to come from Washington, if they ever did,” Strickland said.
The room buzzed as Julie Judkins of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a facilitator in the morning’s youth event, offered some feedback direct from the young people to the big bosses.
“Even though we love Smoky [the Bear], maybe it’s time to get him on the iPhone,” Judkins said.
John Jarvis, head of the National Park Service, offered a succinct summation of the aim of the event in his address.
“We need your ideas so we can spread them around to other parts of the country,” Jarvis said.
The listening sessions have been organized to inform a report that will be on President Barack Obama’s desk by November 15. After the hour-long introductory session that included an eight-minute inspirational video invoking the nation’s relationship with its public lands, the participants headed to breakout sessions in classroom settings to discuss their own experiences.
The sessions were organized to record what strategies were working, what challenges organizations were facing, how the federal government could better facilitate change, and what existing tools could be used to create improvements in the system.
In a breakout session focused on outdoor recreation, participants affiliated with trail clubs, mountain biking groups, paddling groups, tourism offices and scout troops piled into a room.
Mark Singleton, executive director of Sylva-based American Whitewater, participated in the president’s kickoff conference in Washington, D.C., back in April. Two months later he was telling the facilitator that the government had to work to create better and more accessible options for recreation on public land so the younger generation would grow up with a conservation ethic.
“It’s hard to protect something if you don’t love it,” Singleton said. “There can’t be a disconnect with the younger generation.”
Eric Woolridge, the Wautauga County Tourism and Development Authority’s outdoor recreation planner, hailed the new cooperative model in Boone that uses a local tax on overnight lodging to fund outdoor recreation infrastructure projects.
Woolridge oversees an outdoor recreation infrastructure budget of $250,000 derived from proceeds of a 6 percent occupancy tax.
“The key is that we have a revenue stream, and it always stays there,” Woolridge said.
There were specific asks for cooperation from the Feds, too. A woman from North Georgia wanted to know how to get memorandums of understanding with various agencies to help her youth orienteering program.
Don Walton, a board member with the Friends of the Mountain To Sea Trail, asked that the U.S. Park Service to consider allowing more camping opportunities on land owned by the Blue Ridge Parkway.
While each set of stakeholders had their own pet issues, nearly everyone was urging the Feds to ramp up their contribution to the Land And Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from off-shore oil leases to benefit outdoor recreation projects across the country.
Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar authorized $38 million for state projects through the fund this year, but the administration has announced its aim to authorize the full funding level of $900 million for the LWCF by 2014.
Woolridge, Singleton and many other outdoor recreation stakeholders also waned to emphasize that their work isn’t just about playing, it’s about economic development.
“Outdoor recreation and conservation is a legitimate development strategy,” Woolridge said. “In fact, it may be the only development strategy for rural communities.”
For Shafroth, who ran a non-profit in Colorado before taking his job at the Department of Interior, the economic challenges of the moment are an ever-present reality.
“With the shortfalls with resources we have right now and the size of people’s goals… in some cases, there’s a pretty big gulf right now,” Shafroth said.
But more than just dollars and cents, the listening tour is an organizing effort, a way to get conservation-minded people in front of their government to start a long-overdue conversation.
Abe Nail said his attendance at the event wasn’t about money.
“You can’t buy conservation. Conservation is passion driven,” Nail said.
His harshest critics delight in daring you to characterize their frothing hatred — and there is no other word for it — of President Barack Obama as “racist.” They whine, “You just can’t criticize Obama or you’ll be labeled a racist by the socialist, liberal elite media.” Now this is rich. A group that has, for decades, depended upon the labeling of people who disagree with them as a substitute for real debate on the issues is suddenly in a twist over being labeled!
During the campaign for the presidency, we saw repeated, sneering mention of Obama’s full name, Barack Hussein Obama, with a decided emphasis on “Hussein.” We were subjected to rumors about his citizenship, rumors about his religion. I am sure that there are still people who feverishly believe that Obama is a Muslim (he isn’t) who is not even an American citizen (he is). If this isn’t a form of racism, it could pass as a body double.
While this lunatic fringe bears watching, I am more interested in the opposition reaction to three things, all much more recent: Obama’s push for health care, his failed efforts to lobby for the 2016 Olympics to be held in America, and his win of the Nobel Peace Prize. On the surface, these things may not have anything in common, and it is sure that health care is a complicated issue about which people can reasonably disagree.
But the word “reasonable” belongs nowhere near any description of the reaction we have seen regarding Obama’s push for healthcare. The opposition, perhaps gripped with severe amnesia, believes that hundreds of thousands of poor children, just to choose one example of the millions who do not currently have health care, SHOULD have health care, but that we should just find another, less “socialistic,” way to do it. Again, these are the same people whose favored party has been in power for the past eight years. Now I know that the priorities of the previous administration were more centered on war, torture, and tax cuts than finding effective health care options for Americans who do not have coverage, but still, in eight years, you would think they could find half a day or so to discuss it, right?
It is not so much the opposition to health care that gives away the true motives of Obama’s opponents as the reaction to the other two events, however. When Chicago lost out on its bid to land the 2016 Olympic games, Obama haters were delirious with joy. It would only take about five minutes of searching on the Internet to find footage of Americans cheering wildly as news broke that America had lost out on landing the Olympic games. I know it sounds crazy, but you would think that Americans would be happier if we actually landed the games, but apparently not, not if that meant some kind of moral victory for Obama, a president already far too “uppity” for some, evidently. Here was a man in need of a “comeuppance,” and losing the Olympics was just what the doctor ordered.
Except that he turned around immediately and won the Nobel Peace Prize, transforming those joyous cries into apoplectic fits of disgust and despair. When have we seen indignation so absolutely pure as that over Obama’s achievement? Obama himself said he didn’t deserve it, and I am actually inclined to agree with him. After all, you can only put the Nobel Peace Prize so high in your trophy case when you are presiding over two wars, you have failed to initiate an investigation on the possible war crimes of the previous administration, and you have not yet suspended use of the military tribunals of that same administration. If Obama is pacing himself, he needs to pick up the pace. Let’s just say that the Nobel Peace Prize is like a new set of clothes he needs to grow into quickly.
But you see, these are not the arguments of the Obama haters, because these arguments are based on a critical review of the evidence, and not a more deeply ingrained dislike for the man himself. So what are their “arguments”? Maybe no one really knows for sure, not even them. They’ve despised him from the start, and the condition only gets more acute as we go along. It has only been a few weeks since these folks were enraged because Obama gave a pep talk to students about the importance of staying in school and studying hard. Well, we certainly can’t have a sitting President stress the importance of education to America’s students, can we? The very nerve of this fellow!
The people who so dislike Obama say it is no different from people like me who never liked George W. Bush, who never gave him a chance. Well before he was elected, I admit that I thought of Bush as the feckless son of a more successful father, and every time I heard him speak or every time I read anything about his record, I became more and more amazed at the seeming gullibility of those millions of Americans who voted for him as leader of the free world — twice. But I didn’t despise him, not until he and Cheney cooked up this war we’ve been in for over six years, exploiting a national tragedy as a springboard to start it. I just thought that George W. Bush had no more business being president than I had singing opera at the Met.
Is this animosity against Obama different? Yes, I think it is. Is it racist? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s not a duck, but it certainly does quack like one.