[Ghost Written] Lands and Water Restore Us, We Must Protect Them

By Dan Ritzman, As published on SierraClub.org, April 22, 2020

This year has been unlike anything we have ever faced in modern history. It is impossible to fully capture what our frontline workers, communities, and families are going through as we collectively fight the coronavirus. This pandemic has changed life as we know it, and for many, it has forced us to take a step back, slow down, and consider what is important. I’ve felt enormous enjoyment in brief escapes — time spent on (several more) walks with my dog, looking out my window at Seattle’s cherry trees, and taking a few extra moments to breathe in fresh air.

Nature’s benefits are undeniable. As communities face the coronavirus crisis, people are overwhelmingly seeking refuge in the outdoors. At the same time, visiting national parks can pose a high risk: Increased visitorship could create crowded and unsafe conditions for visitors and employees. But outdoor retreat isn’t limited by national park boundaries. Local parks, public lands, and open spaces can provide a great and safe way to get experience nature, while physically distancing and following health guidelines.

Green space is giving us a special type of retreat right now, yet it has always been working in our favor — even when we might not have taken the time to truly appreciate it. Spending time in nature boosts our mood, our lung capacity, and many health factors that make us more equipped to fight illness. The health of our communities is directly related to the health of our environment — which is strengthened by trees, open space, and clean water. But more than half of Americans do not live within walking distance of a park, and due to transportation inequities, do not have access to these places. This Earth Day, it is especially clear that protecting more nature, and creating new ways for people to connect to it, will provide immeasurable benefits.

When we emerge from this crisis, we must hold onto this profound appreciation of the outdoors and work to safeguard these spaces and increase opportunities for this and future generations. Scientists say that in order to have a fighting chance at protecting our planet, and to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis, we must work to protect 30 percent of our country’s lands by 2030.

The goal to protect 30 percent by 2030 offers a bold, new vision and a positive path forward. While we continue fighting the Trump administration’s handouts to big polluting corporations and rollbacks of our bedrock environmental safeguards during this pandemic, we can work as a community to urge our cities, counties, and states to bolster land and water protection in the places we live.

We’ve seen how the Trump administration has responded to the coronavirus crisis. They continue to bail out fossil fuel corporations at a time Americans desperately need support. Destructive industries like oil, gas, logging, and coal — responsible for much damage to our lands and waters — are contributing 20 percent of our country’s emissions on public lands alone and continue to harm public health.

There is a better way — one that prioritizes people, health, and our planet over profit. It is time to turn the tide so that we can make lands and waters work for people and the planet. Nature’s ability to restore, help fight the climate crisis, and improve community health is clear, and it’s time to consider how we expand those benefits. We can urge our mayors, county commissioners, and governors to adopt strong measures to help us achieve the 30 percent by 2030 efforts. Many states like California, Hawaii, and Virginia are already moving toward bold action.

And we must build a movement that centers the sovereignty of Tribal Nations, as well as Indigenous and local knowledge. For too long, conversations about conservation have excluded the people who have known and cared for lands for generations. These are the spaces, waters, and origins of Tribal Nations, and it is time our government consulted with and wholeheartedly listened to them. Indigenous leaders are fighting to save species from going extinct, cementing the cultural importance of lands and waters, and stopping a countless amount of destructive fossil fuel extraction.

Everyone — wildlife, communities, and our environment — benefits from protecting lands and waters. These wild places stimulate billions of dollars in revenue for local economies, provide clean air and water, and have enormous benefits to our health.

When our world moves into life after this crisis, we can work to achieve protections for at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030. We can transform our appreciation into advocacy and protect the places that are right now fortifying our bodies, hearts, and spirits.

Writer and advocate fighting for just and equitable solutions to the climate and extinction crises.