Columnist Johanna Neumann: It’s clearer than ever: we need our parks and green spaces

  • Ed Glica of Holyoke fishes at Mount Tom Reservation, Friday, May 15, 2020. He said he fishes for bass, perch and trout, “but with my luck I usually just catch fresh air.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A couple walks on a trail at Mount Tom Reservation, Thursday, May 21, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Anton and Olesya Goncharenko, of West Springfield, walk on a trail with their daughter, Irina, at Mount Tom Reservation. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Danielle and Joe Arsenault, of Holyoke, take in the view at Mount Tom Reservation, Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Damon Stocks, who works for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, cuts unwanted grass with a weed whacker at Mount Tom Reservation, Thursday, May 21, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 5/26/2020 10:09:22 AM

It took an event that forced the nation to stay at home to remind us how much we need to be outside. That’s a lesson public officials need to remember as they respond to the novel coronavirus and lay the pathway for recovery.

The spread of COVID-19 has required Americans to limit our contact with other people — leading many of us to seek out connection with the natural world. Many national parks have been overwhelmed since Interior Secretary David Bernhardt waived visitor entrance fees last month.

From state parks to local hiking trails, Americans have been pouring out of their homes to enjoy places of peace and beauty that they’re too “busy” to frequent in their hectic 21st century lives.

Our collective “back to nature” response to the coronavirus outbreak is an important reminder of the irreplaceable value of the United States’ parks and natural lands.

Because so many of us have been seeking out nature, in some places, it’s difficult to maintain social distancing. In parts of the country, local officials are limiting access to parks to prevent groups of cooped-up and stressed-out people from all flocking to the same place.

Parks and natural areas are a valuable asset in the effort to promote and improve public health. A large body of evidence correlates time spent outdoors with improved physical and mental health. Access to the outdoors has been especially treasured during a pandemic in which many of us have had to deal with health and economic stress. The benefits of that access are so clear that, even in this time of social distancing, the Centers for Disease Control is underscoring the importance of outdoor activity.

“Staying physically active is one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy. In many areas, people can visit parks, trails, and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active, and safely connect with others.”

Yet, many Americans simply don’t have ready access to parks or natural lands. Nearly one-third of all Americans — 100 million people, including 28 million children — do not have a park within 10 minutes’ walk of their home. During a time of national stress such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or just in everyday life, lack of access to parks limits our ability to take a healthy walk, clear our heads, or simply enjoy the serenity of a forest, marsh or lake.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, for more than 50 years, a federal program has helped to protect our most precious natural lands while expanding access to parks and recreation in our own neighborhoods. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) provides financial support to local, state and federal agencies to protect natural areas and build and improve park facilities.

Funding for the program comes from offshore oil and gas royalties. Over its history, the program has made more than 42,000 grants to states, supporting facilities from urban ballfields to playgrounds to hiking trails. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, the program has funded acquisition and improvements of dozens of treasured open spaces including Mount Toby, Mount Tom, Look Park and Cherry Hill.

However, over the years, Congress has diverted more than half of the funding from LWCF to other budget items — limiting the program’s ability to expand access to open space and nature.

This year, a bipartisan coalition in Congress, with support from Massachusetts’ entire congressional delegation was on the brink of fixing this — that is, before the pandemic hit. Lawmakers were on the cusp of fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million a year, and providing several billion to address maintenance problems at national parks and other public lands.

With images of Americans feeding their souls in natural places fresh in mind, Congress should finish the job and boost funding for the LWCF, giving Americans more places to enjoy the outdoors.

One Iowa hiker interviewed by the Cedar Rapids Gazette during the crisis spoke for many when she said, “I can’t just stay tucked away at home all the time. If I stay home, I get more anxious. Getting outside clears my head.”

Americans have valued nature more during the coronavirus crisis than they have in generations. But nature won’t stop being valuable once the pandemic is over. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to invest in our open spaces and to fully, permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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