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Could the Great American Outdoors Act Lead to Equitable Access to Nature?

Finally, something both parties can agree on — the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is not only a beacon of hope for preservation of the US’ national parks, it could help ensure that the entire country has access to the restorative power of nature.

The Great American Outdoors Act (H.R.1957) is a bill passed this week by Congress, but not yet signed into law by President  Trump. The bill — put forth by Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Steve Daines (R-MONT) — has two major components: fully and permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and providing an additional $9.5 billion in funding to address a maintenance backlog at national parks across the US.

Considered unusually bipartisan in nature, the bill attracted 59 co-sponsors, both Democrat and Republican. Before its passage by Congress, the Associated PressMatthew Daly pointed out that, in this unprecedented time of overlapping crises in the US, the bill has given both parties something to rally around; and, if signed it into law, it would be "the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century."

The need to preserve and maintain our public lands and natural spaces feels especially relevant now: For many of those who live in areas with access to nature, the great outdoors have provided a much-needed respite from the many stresses related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Passage of the bill could be an important turning point in terms of increasing access to these vital natural resources.

“Final passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is a major victory for the hiking community that will expand access to the outdoors for all,” said Kate Van Waes, Executive Director of the American Hiking Society. “With the pandemic shining a bright light on the need for equitable access to natural spaces, securing LWCF permanent funding and tackling a substantial portion of the public lands maintenance backlog will greatly increase recreation opportunities on public lands and in neighborhoods across the country, including those that have historically lacked access.” 

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“The Great American Outdoors Act is a needed investment in our federal lands to ensure we are prepared to welcome Americans who look to the outdoors as a place to spend their family vacations,” said Amy Roberts, Senior Director at The North Face. “Local park districts are in a position to put stateside LWCF dollars to work immediately with shovel-ready projects waiting for dollars. These funds can also be put to work to address inequities around who has a park near their home and who still needs one. The full funding of LWCF is a key part of ensuring that the $887 billion recreation economy is a bright spot in our nation’s economic recovery strategy.”

As REI pointed out in a recent blog: Not only is outdoor recreation a major driver of the US economy, a growing body of research indicates that time spent outside has direct benefits on human physical, mental and emotional well-being — findings the company began citing as part of its 2018 #OptOutside campaign. Those benefits need to be made available for all, and this bill will make tremendous progress towards that goal.

Speaking of increasing access, the passage of the bill takes place during Latino Conservation Week, now in its seventh year — which was created by the Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF) to support the Latino community getting into the outdoors and participating in activities to protect our natural resources. 

“The full, widespread impact LWCF has made on our communities all across this nation could never truly be measured or put into words, and the importance of LWCF cannot be overstated,” said HAF and CEO Maite Arce. “From the smallest to the largest of Latino communities, LWCF has been critical in providing all our nation’s diverse communities with what is often their main or only means to experience the outdoors.

“Whether it’s a local sports field, a community swimming pool or providing new trails, LWCF’s reach into our cities and towns is vital to the health and well-being of millions of Americans nationwide,” Arce added. “It’s a critical tool that provides Latinos and underserved communities with access to the outdoors, it supports both outdoor recreation and tourism economies and helps protect cultural heritage and historically significant places critical to our nation’s diverse and shared history.”

Access to nature is particularly critical for children and their cognitive development — the proliferation of social media and constant screen time has alarmed many parents and led to what some are calling Nature-Deficit Disorder; but the mental, emotional, social and physical benefits of time outdoors for young people have been well-documented; so, ensuring that kids get sufficient time outside is more important than ever.

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