updated 7/6/2009 7:57:34 PM ET 2009-07-06T23:57:34

Despite the recession, a blue-ribbon panel says the federal government should increase by tenfold its spending on outdoor recreation and conservation.

At least $3.2 billion a year — up from current funding of about $255 million — is needed to conserve and protect the nation's outdoor heritage, including parks, wildlife refuges and open space, the group says.

"In the near term, funding at this level is admittedly a difficult request," the group said in a report released Monday. "Without additional funding, however, there is little chance" to adequately protect the nation's lands and waterways.

The report by the bipartisan panel, made up of elected officials and conservationists, also calls for creation of a nationwide system of "blueways" and water trails to improve water-related recreation opportunities. The water trails would be established through public-private partnerships among federal, state and local agencies, local groups and private landowners.

First significant report since 1987
The report by the Outdoor Resources Review Group is the first major assessment of the nation's outdoor resources since a 1987 report by the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chaired the 1987 report as Tennessee governor. He and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., serve as honorary co-chairs of the latest group.

The time is past due for a serious look at how to safeguard outdoor resources, the senators wrote in a foreword to the report. "Today, with a new president and a new administration, we have the opportunity to put our conservation efforts on solid footing for generations to follow," the said.

Alexander and Bingaman presented the report to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a Capitol news conference. Salazar said the report "deserves the utmost consideration." He called outdoor recreation a key jobs creator and said conservation is important, even in difficult economic times.

The 17-member task force was organized by Henry Diamond, an environmental lawyer and former commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation; Patrick Noonan, chairman emeritus of The Conservation Fund; and Gilbert Grosvenor, chairman of the board of the National Geographic Society.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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