by Ben Jealous
On Saturday, environmental advocate Bill Vanderberg was where he is most Saturdays during the year – leading volunteers maintaining trails traversing the Santa Monica Mountains around Los Angeles.
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Fittingly, last Saturday was National Public Lands Day. But Bill’s efforts to care for natural places and to introduce young people to them over the last three decades aren’t prompted by holidays.
He’s seen the transformation in people when they experience the outdoors, particularly students in Crenshaw High’s Eco Club he ran for years and became the school’s biggest extracurricular. He returned recently to Yosemite National Park with nine alumni, two of whom had never been there. “Why do I continue to do it?” he asks. “The look in their eyes and their smiles was why. The other seven already knew, which is why they came back.
He’ll be the first to tell you that more needs to be done across the entire country to create that exposure and to protect lands and waters as parks, preserves, monuments, and refuges.
“Los Angeles itself is a very park poor community,” Bill said. The state recreation area he lives across a major highway from can only be reached by car on the southern end while there are two trails with direct access on the northern edge in Baldwin Hills, he notes.
The arguments for more public outdoor spaces are overwhelming. Kids do better in school and experience less asthma when they have ready access to parks; older adults are healthier too.
Trees act as sponges for greenhouse gases, and acres preserved in a natural state aren’t available for development. Our goal is to protect 30 percent of the nation’s landscape by 2030, which will mean more than doubling what we have today. Right now, we lose the equivalent of a football field of land to development every 30 seconds in this country.
Parks can more than pay for themselves. The Interior Department reported last month that visitor spending in communities near National Parks in 2022 resulted in a record high $50.3 billion benefit to the nation’s economy and supported 378,400 jobs. Given federal spending of $3.3 billion, a $1 spent on National Parks creates more than $10 of economic benefit.
Bill Vanderberg points out that availability of parks is just a start to realizing equitable access. He spent the summer working in Yosemite. “I saw no African Americans all summer,” he says. “The only people of color I saw were from France.”
They aren’t truly “public lands” if significant percentages of the public don’t feel welcome using them, Bill notes. In 2017, his students were recognized as the youth volunteer group of the year by Yosemite. A few years later, he was threatened with arrest when he tried to use showers in the park.
“Racism at parks is real – both macro and micro. My kids have had numerous negative experiences while exploring ‘their’ public spaces,” Bill says. “The problem is not the parks, but this racism in society.”
He’s right that parks aren’t the problem. They can be a part of the solution. Providing greater access to them and finding efforts to support like the school club Bill ran will bring more and more of us together. When we gather that way and can share in natural wonders side by side, we will grow closer as a nation.
Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. He is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free,” published in January.