How a Young Generation of Outdoors Leaders Are Expanding Access to Nature

by Jackie Ostfeld, OAK Founder & Chair

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (center) meets with youth leaders and members of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids on May 18, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Ostfeld)

Sunshine and 80 degrees in Washington, DC – you couldn’t have asked for a better day to talk about the importance of nature. After a two-year pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Outdoors Alliance for Kids’ (OAK) annual OAK Week relaunched in person on Tuesday. Youth environmental leaders gathered in our nation’s capital to meet with decision-makers from the Biden administration, career outdoor professionals, and activists to experience one of the most stunning urban green spaces and discuss the future of outdoor access in this country.

Guided by experienced park rangers, the youth-led group set out on a sunny spring morning in Rock Creek Park, the largest national park in Washington, DC and a treasured resource for area residents. DC may be known for its government buildings and monuments to our country, but Rock Creek Park is a true green jewel for the city.

Washingtonians are fortunate to have Rock Creek Park in their proverbial backyards, but many people in the US don’t have access to such nearby nature opportunities. Today, about 100 million people, including 28 million kids, don’t live within 10 minutes of a high-quality park. Youth leaders like Robbie Bond, Lily Kay, Tigran Nahabedian, and Uriel Llanas are working to change that.

After the hike, they gathered for a conversation with representatives from the US Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the importance of youth access to the outdoors and what the Biden administration is doing to improve it through the America the Beautiful initiative. This initiative seeks to protect 30 percent of all lands and waters in the US by 2030 to stave off the worst effects of climate change, while ensuring that all communities benefit from access to nature and green spaces.

This is especially important to Robbie, Lily, Tigran, and Uriel who each spoke about their own experiences in the outdoors, their efforts to expand access to nature for all kids, and why this matters to their generation. Their message to the president was clear: We must preserve these places and protect more of our landscapes so their generation and generations to come can enjoy them and establish life-long connections with nature.

Before leaving Rock Creek Park for the day, the group spoke with a panel of environmental advocates on how to transform their passion for the outdoors into careers. I have to agree with Dr. Homer Wilkes, Under Secretary at the US Department of Agriculture, “we have a very, very, very bright future.”

The day ended with a celebration of the decision-makers and activists who are working to ensure all kids, regardless of ZIP code, are able to create direct connections with nature. Sen. Alex Padilla, (D-CA), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO), and Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) were all recognized for their leadership on increasing youth access to the outdoors.

Before heading out of town, these youth leaders joined OAK members for a day on Capitol Hill advocating for outdoor equity legislation. In between working the phones and pounding the pavement, the group had the pleasure of a visit from Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA), one of the main champions of the Transit to Trails Act, which would increase public transportation between communities and public lands.

Access to the outdoors is vital for youth development. The longer it takes for a young person to have their first connection with nature, the less likely they are to ever have one. Exposing kids to the outdoors has immediate benefits that turn into life-long habits of environmental advocacy. Robbie, Lily, Tigran, and Uriel know that first hand.