By Alex Taurel
The coronavirus has changed so much in our lives. One thing is our relationship to nature, which for many has proven to be a source of coping and exercise during this anxious time. Our family has been frequenting places like the Rivanna Trail and Charlotte Yancey Humphris Park. Another favorite of ours—the path along the John Warner Parkway—saw a more than four-fold increase in the number of pedestrians and cyclists this March compared to the previous March, as C-VILLE reported recently. The pandemic has shown that we need more close-to-home outdoor spaces for people to safely enjoy. And I don’t just mean “safely” in terms of social distancing. In the wake of the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man who was shot multiple times while out for a jog, it’s clear that we as a country have work to do to make this a place where people of color can simply go outside without fearing for their lives—like I, as a white person, am privileged to do.
At this time when we’re craving more green spaces, the reality is that nature is under threat. A groundbreaking study of the human footprint in the lower 48 states found that on average every 30 seconds the United States loses a football field worth of natural area to development such as roads, housing subdivisions, and pipelines. The Trump administration is making it worse by lifting protections against drilling and mining on public lands like Bears Ears and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If this continues, it’ll mean wild places equivalent to the size of South Dakota will disappear by 2050. Globally, one scientific report found that humans have “significantly altered” three-fourths of the planet’s lands and two-thirds of marine areas, which could lead to the extinction of approximately 1 million plant and animal species.
Protecting nature, however, isn’t just about saving wildlife. Nature gives people clean drinking water, clean air, healthy food supplies, and the biodiversity that is the source of so many cures in medicine. It also drives a robust outdoor recreation economy. From boating to camping to skiing, America’s outdoor economy is responsible for $778 billion in economic activity, employs 5.2 million people, and depends on access to public lands. Here in Charlottesville, we’re lucky to have independent outdoor businesses like Ragged Mountain Running Shop and Freestyle. I’m proud to have used my dollars during the pandemic to help them stay afloat when so many in their industry are hurting. A recent nationwide industry survey found that 79 percent of outdoor recreation businesses have laid off or furloughed a portion of their workforce, and 11 percent have closed entirely.
With nature and our outdoor economy collapsing, we must accelerate the pace of nature conservation. That’s why a growing number of scientists are calling for the protection of at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030. The movement to protect “30 by 30” within the United States has broad support from 86 percent of voters, and the backing of former vice president Joe Biden, United States senators, representatives, and state legislators from both parties.
It’s critical that the new protections we seek yield a more equitable distribution of nature’s benefits. For too long, natural resource policy in this country has systematically harmed Indigenous peoples and communities of color, from land theft to the lack of safe, quality parks in neighborhoods predominantly populated by people of color. We can and must do better.
Reaching a 30 by 30 conservation goal will require action at all levels of government. Charlottesville, Albemarle and surrounding counties, the state of Virginia, the federal government, and everyday people all have a role to play in expanding access to nature, from local parks all the way up to national parks. We should all be asking elected officials and candidates for their plans to accelerate the pace of nature conservation in the United States.
An immediate step that can be taken on the path to 30 by 30 is for Congress to pass the Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422). This bill would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has expanded national parks like Zion and invested in community parks in every single state. Locally, Ivy Creek Natural Area, Azalea Park, James River State Park, and the George Washington National Forest all received funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This bill would also provide funding to address the maintenance backlog in national parks, including Shenandoah. These investments will help put people back to work in the construction and outdoor recreation industry, which is why the outdoor industry’s main trade associations are strong supporters. More than half the U.S. Senate, including Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are co-sponsors, while 118 House members from both parties—Congressman Denver Riggleman regrettably was not among them—recently sent a letter in support. It’s time to get this bill done.
The pandemic has reinforced how important nature truly is. Let’s take concrete action today and pass the Great American Outdoors Act to protect more green spaces for our health, safety, and economic recovery.
Alex Taurel is the conservation program director at the League of Conservation Voters. He and his family live in Charlottesville.