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Obama Admin. Promotes 'Great Outdoors' Program

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama is promoting a new effort to protect public lands and boost conservation, an initiative that mostly rebrands current programs under a new name.

Obama said it is important to conserve public lands, even in tough economic times, and said the new "America's Great Outdoors" program will encourage more Americans to enjoy the outdoors. The president was slated to promote the program at a White House ceremony Wednesday afternoon.

The White House declined to release a price tag for the Great Outdoors initiative, but said much of the spending will be blended into existing programs run by the Interior and Agriculture departments and the Environmental Protection Agency. The program also encompasses the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The Interior Department, which has the largest share of the program, set aside $5.5 billion for the outdoors program in its budget proposal for the next fiscal year. Most of that money, $4.6 billion, is for operations for three agencies - the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service - and does not represent new spending.

An administration official, who asked not to be identified, because she was speaking ahead of the White House announcement, said the program is largely intended to rebrand existing programs under the banner of America's Great Outdoors.

Still, the program includes some new spending. It would double - to $900 million - federal spending on land and water conservation. The money would be used to buy private land for public use and provide grants to states.

Besides conservation, the program also is intended to increase Americans' awareness of the outdoors and the importance of nature, especially for children. In a report to be released Wednesday, the administration cites studies showing that access to the outdoors can help reverse the obesity epidemic that has tripled among America's youth.

"Time spent in nature can reduce stress and anxiety, promote learning and personal growth, and foster physical and mental health," the report says. A copy of the report was obtained by The Associated Press.

Environmental groups hailed the outdoors program, but some Western lawmakers said it could force urban ideas about land conservation onto rural residents.

"The word 'conservation' should not be wielded as a broad, overriding excuse to restrict or prohibit Americans' access to their public lands for pleasure, sport, jobs or better quality of life," said Rep. Doc Hastings. R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Hastings said he would oppose efforts to restrict farming, ranching or timber production in the name of conservation.