In four years, the National Park System will be 100 years old (almost as old as the Sierra Club). Last week, I attended America’s Summit on National Parks to participate in a discussion about the future of what Ken Burns has called (and I agree), America’s Best Idea – the National Parks.
Speakers, ranging from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, to National Park Director Jon Jarvis, to REI CEO Sally Jewell, to Sierra Club volunteer and Natural Leaders Network Coordinator Juan Martinez helped paint a vision for the parks in the second century.
For those of you concerned about the growing divide between kids and nature, you are not alone. The alarming trend towards indoor-ism has the leaders of our parks systems concerned, too. Who’s going to care for our parks and public lands in the future when today’s kids spend only minutes a week in nature-based activities?
One of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s priorities for his agency is to get youth back outdoors through service, education, recreation and by making the outdoors more accessible. With more than 80% of Americans living in urban areas, investments in close-to-home parks must be part of any plan to reconnect our kids (and adults) with nature. During his keynote address, Salazar reemphasized the importance of park accessibility. Last year, as part of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, Salazar announced that the National Park Service was working with the local community to establish the largest urban park campground in America at Floyd Bennett Field in New York City.
During a break out session on urban populations and parks, I learned about additional efforts to bring the parks to the people. In San Francisco, Crissy Field was established following a massive community outreach effort that would lead to an attractive and useful urban park with historic, cultural and natural features. We also heard from a small but important program of the National Park Service – the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program partners with communities upon invitation to support neighborhood greening initiatives. RTCA might provide assistance to turn a brownfield into a greenfield, or plant trees along a route from a school to a park. The program recognizes that greening initiatives within a community are the first step towards connecting people with nature and our parks and public lands more broadly.
Getting people outdoors where they live is not just good for our parks and green spaces. Did you know that Gallup has a well-being index that has begun looking into access to the outdoors and health? During a panel presentation, Gallup revealed some of its findings: people who live near parks have fewer headaches, lower obesity rates and as many as 25% fewer heart attacks.
Getting outdoors is good for people and good for the planet. The “Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement,” released last August, says the second-century National Park Service “connects people to parks and helps communities protect what is special to them, highlight their history, and retain or rebuild their economic and environmental sustainability.” Over the next one hundred years if we want to reverse this growing divide between people and nature, we will need to do more to bring the people to the parks AND the parks to the people.
--by Jacqueline Ostfeld, National Youth Representative, Sierra Club