COLLAZO AND CROW: It’s clearer than ever — we need our parks and green spaces

Aside from outings to meet essential needs, Coloradans have been at home for a month and half. During this time, we have realized how much we all crave being outside. Nature, more than ever, is paramount to our physical, spiritual, emotional and mental health. That’s a lesson public officials need to remember as they respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and lay the pathway for recovery.

The spread of COVID-19 requires Americans to limit our contact with other people — leading many of us to seek out connection with the natural world. From ​state parks ​to ​local hiking trails​, Coloradans are searching for places of peace and beauty close to home that we’re too “busy” to frequent in our hectic lives. However, many national parks have been ​overwhelmed ​since Interior Secretary David Bernhardt waived visitor entrance fees last month. From ​state parks ​to local hiking trails​, Coloradans pour out of our homes to enjoy places of peace and beauty that we’re too “busy” to frequent in our hectic lives.

Our collective 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 seek out nature, in some places, it’s difficult to maintain physical distancing. In parts of the country, local officials are limiting access to parks to prevent people desperate to find solace and activity outdoors from all flocking to the same place.

It’s important to find a healthy balance between access to the outdoors and stopping the spread of the virus since parks and natural areas promote and ​improve​ physical and ​mental health. Access to the outdoors is especially treasured during this crisis in which many of us have to cope with health and economic stress. Even in this time of social distancing, the ​CDC 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 Coloradans simply don’t have ready access to 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. Reflexively, people think of the iconic mountains when they think about nature in Colorado. However, the urban parks and trails are just as important and needed to ensure everybody has access to open spaces and nature.

It doesn’t have to be that way. For more than 50 years, The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has helped to protect our most precious natural lands while expanding access to parks and recreation in our own neighborhoods. Funding for the program comes from offshore oil and gas royalties. Over its history, the program has funded more than 42,000 grants to states, supporting facilities from urban ballfields to playgrounds to hiking trails. ​Here ​in Aurora, the program funds the Cherry Creek State Park.

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 Rep. Jason Crow (Dr. Crow’s spouse) and Sen. Cory Gardner was on the brink of fixing this until 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.

Hannah Collazo is state director for Environment Colorado and Deserai Crow is Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver