If I was the kind of person who has the ability to plan ahead, I would’ve written an incredible ode to public lands sometime before, say, 3 p.m. on National Public Lands day. Instead I’m going to tell you about a great way to celebrate Public Lands that, ironically, does not require you to leave your chair.
I spent this Saturday morning on … wait for it … public lands. I ran 22 miles today on a delightful, well maintained public park trail near Ashland City, Tennessee with a handful of my runner brethren. The trail is the benefactor of a team of volunteers who do some of the work to clear fallen branches. The rest of the work is provided by the city. As a result runners, walkers and cyclists have the chance to get out there in a safe location, enjoy the opulent shade coverage and get some exercise.
In the great scheme of national priorities — things like national security, making sure people have food and law enforcement — funding public lands doesn’t get top billing. Nor should it. If we had to make a “most important” to “least important” list, I think we could all agree that those things rank higher.
But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Public lands in general and, for the sake of this discussion National Parks in particular serve an important public health purpose. We think of them as “recreation,” but in a nation where obesity is an ever growing problem (see what I did there?) having maintained, safe space to go outside and move is a relatively cheap alternative compared to the public healthcare costs of treating obesity related diseases.
Public parks are also an important part of the national economy. Millions upon millions of visitors travel to parks every year, stoping in local communities along the way, buying products and keeping the citizens in those places in jobs.
As a military reporter I am keenly aware of the costs of government shutdown to our military and federal workforce. But such an act of irresponsibility by our elected officials also risks our public lands — the very thing we are celebrating today. The government shutdown in 2013 turned away eight million visitors over just a handful of days — people whose entrance fees and gift shop purchases help an already strapped system
Thanks to ongoing sequestration, another colossal act of stupidity by elected officials that, they admit, was never meant to become reality, the parks have also experienced a seven percent funding cut over the last several years. That means there are fewer rangers, for example, and a $11.5 billion maintenance backlog (think things like roads in hard to maintain places). The vast majority of the system’s infrastructure was originally constructed during the Great Depression as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Really old stuff takes a lot of upkeep.
So you want to celebrate public lands today? Email your congressional representatives, tell them to get their heads out of their third points of contact, and to pass a budget that will keep our National Parks open and funded in a way that can allow us all to enjoy them for many, many years to come. Go here.