Outdoors Access: A Rare Bipartisan Issue in Deadlocked Congress

Congress is deadlocked. But there’s one issue consistently breaking through: access to the outdoors for all.

No one thought a public lands package would pass. But not only did it pass this spring, it included the Every Kid Outdoors Act, legislation designed to make sure every fourth grader in the United States gets to visit their national parks.

Now three bills are under consideration that would make it easier for kids, veterans and marginalized communities to spend time in nature. Outdoors for All (S. 1458; H.R. 2943) would provide funding for local parks, aiming to increase the number of U.S. residents living within a ten minute walk of a public park. The Transit to Trails Act ( S. 2467; HR 4273) would provide block grants for transportation for low-income communities to visit public lands. And the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, introduced in the Senate and House, would establish an interagency task force on using public lands as medical treatment and therapy for veterans.

There’s growing bipartisan support for policies that aim to expand access and opportunities for all people to enjoy public lands. I haven’t talked to anyone from any congressional office who opposes getting kids and families outdoors, active, and connected with nature.

I think that’s because kids today spend less time outdoors than any generation in history, impacting their concentration, success in school, mental and physical health — and even their eyesight. Those impacts are felt even among the families of our elected leaders. Everyone knows that declining rates of outdoor activity are costing us our health. There is an emerging body of research demonstrating that access to the outdoors increases lifespan, reduces anxiety and depression and correlates with improved outcomes on just about every health issue you can imagine.

It’s not just D.C. that has this figured out. All over the nation, communities are finding creative ways to reconnect with nature. In the Los Angeles area, the Nature for All coalition worked with local authorities to create a pilot shuttle system to carry transit riders to trailheads in the San Gabriel Mountains. Now, low-income families and youth without access to a car can enjoy the San Gabriels.

In New York, our team is leading overnight backpack trips with the veteran community entirely by transit, to show participants the routes they can take on their own. In the Bay Area, Transit and Trails provides a database of hikes that are accessible by public transit. And inspired by federal legislation to offer fourth graders passes to national parks, states are following suit and opening access to state parks for local kids.

Through Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All Campaign, we’ve learned that there are three major issues that stop kids from spending time outside: First, they have to live near a park, somewhere they can actually spend time in nature. The Outdoors for All Act would help address this. Second, they have to have transportation to get to a local or regional park — this is where the Transit to Trails Act comes in. And finally: cost. It costs up to $35 just to enter many of our national parks, much less to travel and stay there. The Every Kid Outdoors Act helped eliminate that barrier for families with fourth graders, and these current bills would help even more kids and adults get access to the healing power of nature.

I’m grateful that even in this time of division, our elected leaders can agree on one thing: access to nature is a human right. Every kid, every veteran and every member of an under-resourced community deserves a chance to spend time outdoors.

Jackie Ostfeld is the director of the Sierra Club Outdoors for All Campaign and founder & chair of Outdoors Alliance for Kids.

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