December 8, 2021
By Jayni Rasmussen, Senior Campaign Representative, OAK
As the Build Back Better Act moves through Congress, carrying with it billions in potential funding for outdoor access, the Senate is now considering an historic slate of bills that could transform who has access to public lands and waters. Last week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on a potential package of outdoor recreation bills, focusing on the acute effect the pandemic has had on outdoor recreation, as well as the drastic inequities in access to the outdoors that have been highlighted over the past two years.
Of the bills discussed, several OAK priorities were included:
The Outdoors for All Act would create a dedicated source of funding for projects that expand outdoor recreational opportunities in urban and low-income communities across the nation.
The Parks, Jobs, and Equity Act would provide a critical one-time investment of $500 million in the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program (ORLP) to help states and cities build more parks in underserved areas.
The Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation (SOAR) Act would streamline the permitting process so that more people can access public lands and waters.
The Environmental Justice in Recreational Permitting Act would direct government agencies to explore ways to make the outdoors more accessible for environmental justice communities.
The economy and health were major themes in this hearing, from the effect the pandemic has had on the outdoor recreation economy that comprises 2.1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), to effects the pandemic and outdoor access has had on physical and mental health. Senators spoke about concerns for the mental health of children and youth, with more than 28 million children currently lacking access to open space within a ten minute walk, bike or roll from their homes.
Considering the proven mental and physical health benefits of accessing the outdoors, it’s absolutely critical that Congress invest in these common-sense, cost-effective investments that increase outdoor access. As hearing witness Jess Wahl Turner of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable stated, these bills would drive pragmatic solutions that “facilitate more people getting outside, while protecting our natural resources now and for generations to come.”
So, how exactly can the passage of these bills help close the nature equity gap for children, youth and families?
Reducing Barriers to Exploring the Outdoors
Before Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) was elected to Congress, he was a recreational guide in the state, noting during the hearing that he could “speak from experience how difficult the permitting process is.” Passing the SOAR Act and the Environmental Justice in Recreational Permitting Act would mean more recreational guides as well as outdoor visitors of all backgrounds could have easier access to public lands and waters. A streamlined process will also make it easier and more cost-effective for guides to offer more varied experiences, helping more children and families to safely enjoy the outdoors and learn recreational skills.
Increased Investment in Youth & Family Outdoor Access
As the Trust for Public Land found in a 2020 report, parks serving primarily nonwhite populations are half the size of parks that serve white populations, and nearly five times as crowded. Unfortunately, low-income and racially and ethnically diverse communities often receive significantly less investment in their outdoor spaces. The Outdoors for All Act and Parks Jobs and Equity Act would address this by focusing increased investments in building and improving parks in these communities.
OAK is excited to see Congress pass the Build Back Better Act so that next steps on these and other bills can be taken to increase equitable access to the outdoors for children, youth and families.
About the author:
Jayni Rasmussen is the Senior Campaign Representative for the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) & Youth at Sierra Club.