guest post by Elayne Elliot, Chapter Director of Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter and Jackie Ostfeld, OAK Chair and Director of Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All campaign
Sierra Club and our partners have a long history of working to expand access to the outdoors for all Michiganders, starting with the pivotal role that we played in establishing Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to the announcement today from Governor Gretchen Whitmer of her Nature Awaits program in Michigan.
Under the Nature Awaits program, every fourth grader in Michigan will have a free field trip to a state park, along with free access to national parks as part of the Every Kid Outdoors program that guarantees access to federal public lands for fourth graders across the country. The Every Kid Outdoors program was launched in 2015, with the support of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK), to expand access to our national parks, public lands and waters for fourth graders and their families. It was a program that won broad bipartisan support, and more than two million fourth graders downloaded their passes in just the first two years alone. State park access is a meaningful way to ensure that all kids in Michigan have access to public green spaces. For kids and families who don’t live near a national park or other federally managed land, expansion to state land is critical for making sure that they can actually take advantage of these programs. Michigan is the perfect example. The state’s one national park is only accessible by ferry, seaplane, or private watercraft, and its two national lakeshores are much more far-flung in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. For the southern population centers in Michigan, Belle Isle and Van Buren state parks among many others can easily be a day trip.
Access to nature is a fundamental human right, and research shows that time in nature improves mental and physical health. However, access to the outdoors is often an equity issue – most low-income people of color experience what researchers are now calling “nature deprivation,” with little-to-no access to parks, paths, and green spaces, a product of racist historical redlining policies. Michigan has made strides to improve access to the outdoors, with the announcement of a new state park in Flint and the expansion of the Joe Lewis Greenway in Detroit. The introduction of the Nature Awaits program makes it clear that the Whitmer administration is taking important steps in the right direction to close the nature equity gap, as well. Along with protecting more green spaces and prioritizing park development and maintenance, we need to ensure that cost and transportation are not barriers for Michiganders to enjoy the mental and physical benefits of time spent outdoors.
We are committed to making sure that all Michigan kids have access to the transformational experience of time in our amazing Michigan parks. Through our partnerships as part of the Detroit Outdoors collaborative, students from Southeast Michigan have been paddling on Belle Isle, snowboarding on Crystal Mountain, ice-climbing in the Upper Peninsula, backpacking at Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks, and have access to the gear library and guided overnight camping in the only campground in the heart of Detroit. With the expansion of state park passes for every fourth grader in Michigan, at least one financial barrier has been removed for kids. We look forward to jumping on the opportunities offered by this expansion to make sure every kid in Michigan has a transformative experience in our woodlands, sand dunes, mountains, and stunning Great Lakes beaches.
As the Biden Administration works to protect 30% of public lands and waters in the United States by 2030 and reduce disparities in nature access, programs like Nature Awaits are an important way to close the nature equity gap. Michigan joins five other states – California, Maryland, Nevada, New York, and Wyoming – in extending the Every Kid Outdoors program to either fourth or fifth graders. Expanding access to public lands ensures kids and communities can experience the full benefits of a connection to nature, while empowering a new generation of environmental advocates. Michigan took an important step forward today. We hope other states will follow suit and adopt the Every Kid Outdoors program and consider additional measures to protect public lands and expand access for all.