Among mountain trails and city parks in our home states of Colorado and Washington, we have gratefully found refuge in nature amid this global pandemic. Never has fresh air tasted so good as now, when it provides escape from a virus that is at its deadliest indoors.
That may be one reason why Congress shed its partisan colors to pass a bill that will invest nearly a billion dollars a year to create new local, state and national parks and natural areas where families can safely get outside together.
The bill, called the Great American Outdoors Act, will also finally fix up thousands of run-down roads, trails and visitor facilities that are being loved to death through heavy and growing use of our public lands.
As former secretaries of the interior for Barack Obama, we applaud the bill’s bipartisan supporters in Congress who, building on decades of work by conservation organizations, businesses and advocates across the country, approved these critical investments in our nation’s conservation heritage.
However, the Great American Outdoors Act will not cover up the unprecedented environmental damage that Donald Trump and his administration have done over the past three and a half years.
Measured by the public lands and waters he has removed from protection, Trump stands out as the most anti-nature president in US history.
Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments, the Tongass national forest, the Arctic national wildlife refuge, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts national monument are among the 60,000 sq miles of national treasures that Trump has targeted for mining, drilling, logging and commercial exploitation.
The Great American Outdoors Act is merely a Band-Aid on these deep gashes.
Still, Congress’s decision to fix up and expand the nation’s network of parks and green spaces can jumpstart a bold new vision for nature conservation that – in defiance of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental attacks – is emerging in the United States. This movement is energized by a need to solve three core problems.
First, it is increasingly clear that the status quo framework for nature protection in the US and globally is unable to prevent mass extinctions of wildlife and the collapse of nature.
In the US, we are losing a football field worth of natural area to development every 30 seconds. One million plant and animal species on our planet are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. Scientists say that if we want to protect the clean water, clean air and food supplies that every person needs to live, we need to protect at least 30% of our planet’s lands and ocean by 2030 (30×30). Currently, only 12% of US lands and 23% of our ocean is well-protected in a natural condition, and most of these protected ocean areas are in the western Pacific.
Pursuing this 30×30 goal in the US is ambitious, necessary and doable. With the help of investments through the Great American Outdoors Act, states, tribal nations and local communities will be able to do more to protect the places that matter most to them. Congress and federal agencies, meanwhile, can help rebuild America’s economy by conserving lands that power outdoor recreation economies, restoring and reforesting degraded lands and coasts, and rewarding farmers and ranchers who – from the Prairie Potholes of the Dakotas to the northern Everglades of Florida – are protecting vital wildlife habitat.
Second, past approaches to developing and protecting lands – often dominated by white, wealthy and well-connected men – have resulted in deep racial and economic inequities in how nature’s benefits are distributed in this country. Too often, the sovereignty of tribal nations, the perspectives of people of color, and the livelihoods of working people have been ignored and trampled upon.
A disproportionate share of the nation’s polluting industries, for example, have been sited near communities of color.
And the nature-protection work of governments and nonprofits has traditionally prioritized postcard-worthy wilderness lands in sparsely populated areas and open spaces near more affluent, white suburbs.
As a result of these factors and other legacies of discrimination and racism, a Black, Latinx or Asian American person in the United States is three times more likely than a white person to live in an area that is nature deprived, meaning a place that has fewer parks, streams and other natural areas nearby.
This is unfair and unacceptable.
This next phase of America’s conservation movement must achieve a more equitable and inclusive distribution of nature’s benefits, so that every child in America, regardless of race, background or economic status, has access to clean water, fresh air and the wonders of nature nearby.
Climate change is the third motivator for a renewed conservation movement in the US.
Simply put, we cannot solve the climate crisis without taking far more ambitious steps to conserve and restore nature.
Forests are our most powerful and cheapest technology for scrubbing and storing carbon pollution out of the air. Wetlands, natural floodplains and healthy coastal ecosystems also store carbon and are our strongest buffers against increasingly frequent and intense floods, hurricanes and superstorms.
Yet, for too long, US climate change strategies have overlooked or minimized the importance of protecting and restoring nature. That is beginning to change.
The House select committee on the climate crisis recently released the first comprehensive national climate policy plan to adequately account for the role that nature can and should play in the fight against climate change. In addition to establishing a national goal for nature conservation, for example, it recognizes that reforesting, restoring and cleaning up our lands and waters can create millions of new jobs.
Learning from the success of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, Congress can expand the nation’s existing network of youth and service programs – such as the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, Americorps and the Student Conservation Association – to put people to work, provide a healthy dose of nature, and a boost our economy when we need it most.
For everyone who loves to get outdoors and who wishes to share nature’s bounty with their children and grandchildren, the scale and severity of the nature, racial injustice and climate crises can seem overwhelming, especially with Trump compounding these interlocking problems on a daily basis.
But Congress’s passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is a reminder that we collectively have the power to write a new chapter in America’s conservation history, so that the promise of fresh air and the freedom of nature is guaranteed to every American, for all time.
Sally Jewell, former CEO of REI, served, as secretary of the interior from 2013 to 2017. Ken Salazar, a former US senator and attorney general for the state of Colorado, served as secretary of the interior from 2009 to 2013