Access to nature is crucial for our health, wellbeing

A river in Kings Canyon National Park, California. (Photo: Owen Sholes, via Shutterstock)

Over the last year, Californians have turned to neighborhood parks, trails, and beaches for respite and healing more than ever before. Some of us have grown to appreciate the park down the street or have developed a favorite walking route through tree-lined neighborhoods.

Yet many of us all over the state have to drive miles for green space because there aren’t any parks close to home.

Access to nature is not a privilege— it’s a necessity for our health and wellbeing. Spending time outdoors improves physical and mental health, and provides opportunities to connect with loved ones. Trees help purify the air and offer shade on a hot day. At the same time, climate change is exacerbating hazards such as pollution and intense heat, which disproportionately affect communities of color.

Importantly, many of these public lands and rivers are adjacent to communities of color that lack parks.

We must work quickly to increase equitable access to the outdoors for us and for future generations.

That’s why I’m grateful that U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla introduced the PUBLIC Lands Act that will protect and increase access to over one million acres of public lands and 500 miles of rivers statewide. This includes special places near Los Angeles, along the Central Coast, and in Northwest California.

Importantly, many of these public lands and rivers are adjacent to communities of color that lack parks. Latinos have long been able to count on Sen. Padilla’s leadership on issues that so many of us value, and we’re grateful he’s championing this effort so soon after taking office.

Along California’s Central Coast, the legislation will safeguard over 300,000 acres of public lands and 150 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

This increases opportunities to experience world-class nature for residents in Santa Maria and Fillmore, who are majority Latino and face limited park access. Moreover, the legislation prohibits future oil and gas drilling in these places, which will help reduce carbon emissions and impacts from climate change.

In the Los Angeles area, the PUBLIC Lands Act expands the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and establishes a new National Recreation Area. The San Gabriel Mountains provide Angelenos with 70% of their open space, and these protections will particularly benefit residents of Baldwin Park, El Monte, and South LA that have very limited access to parks.

The legislation also authorizes creation of nearly 300 miles of new trails in Northwest California, including in rural areas where residents aren’t easily able to recreate outdoors.

For more than a decade, communities statewide have organized to secure these wins for our public lands and rivers. The House of Representatives also passed similar protections in February of this year. I appreciate that Sen. Padilla recognizes the diversity of support behind the PUBLIC Lands Act and is leading on this effort in the Senate. I hope to see Sens. Padilla and Feinstein push for passage in the Senate this year.

Spending time outdoors helps us heal, connect with each other, and feel human. Over the last year there has been an urgent call to increase access to nature, but we all deserve to have these experiences every day.

I hope the Senate will act quickly to pass the PUBLIC Lands Act so that all Californians, and future generations, can benefit from our state’s beloved public lands and rivers.

Editor’s Note: Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš is the founder and executive director of Azul, a Bay Area grassroots organization working to conserve marine resources. She is also a member of the Parks Now Coalition, whose members are experts, activists, and community leaders from across California.

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