More than ever, we need parks for healing, bonding with family

The San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles in L.A. and San Bernardino counties. (Photo: Noah Sauve, via Shutterstock)

My childhood memories are colored by the grey concrete that was everywhere in my community. Growing up east of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley, we didn’t have many parks or green spaces nearby. But there was one exception – the San Gabriel Mountains.

The San Gabriel Mountains were a place where my siblings and I gathered with our aunts, uncles, and cousins to hike, to share stories about family members who had passed and to learn about the beauty of nature. The hikes were a chance to discover what was most important in our lives. It was our time to bond and connect.

It was one of the only places where I could feel free and at peace.

The lessons I learned in the San Gabriel Mountains have served me well throughout my life.

From 1993 to 1997, I served in the U.S. Marine Corps and was injured on active duty. After my injury, I was told I would never be able to walk or run. The San Gabriel Mountains became my refuge.

It was one of the only places where I could feel free and at peace. Where I could distract myself from my injury by watching the beautiful animals that inhabit the mountains. The San Gabriel Mountains became a source of motivation and a place to challenge the assumptions that were put on my body. It was where I could heal and move past the pain I felt in my bones.

My fellow veterans and all Californians need access to public lands, so they can have the same positive experiences I had in the San Gabriel Mountains. Fortunately, California is on track to do just that.

The San Gabriel Mountains already provide Angelenos with 70% of their available open space.

California’s U.S. Senator Alex Padilla recently introduced the PUBLIC Lands Act, which would permanently safeguard more than one million acres of public lands and over 500 miles of rivers in the San Gabriel Mountains, on the Central Coast, and in Northwest California. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is also championing the legislation.

Recently the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources held its first hearing on the PUBLIC Lands Act. I am grateful to Sen. Padilla for his leadership on this legislation and I hope to see the Senate pass it this year.

In the Los Angeles area, the PUBLIC Lands Act will increase equitable access to the outdoors by expanding the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument by over 109,000 acres and establishing a new National Recreation Area.

The San Gabriel Mountains already provide Angelenos with 70% of their available open space. Expanding the National Monument and adding the new National Recreation Area will improve access to nature for communities with limited park access, such as Baldwin Park and El Monte.

Protecting places like the San Gabriel Mountains so that more Californians, especially residents of color, can access the outdoors is a critical equity issue for the state. The nearly 2 million veterans living in California would also benefit greatly from increased park access. All of us, no matter our financial means or where we live, should have the same opportunities to bond with our loved ones and support our health by spending time in nature.

I still go hiking with my family in the San Gabriel Mountains every few months. It’s a tradition I will always treasure. I hope my nieces and nephews and the generations that come after them will have the opportunity to do the same.

When we learn about the power of nature from a young age, we can return to it when we need to heal, whether those wounds are from military service or other challenging  life experiences. All communities should be able to take a break from the concrete views outside our windows and experience our state’s natural treasures.

Editor’s Note: Sonia Fernández is a veteran and lives in Orange County.

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