OAK Week 2023: A Look At the Ways We’ve Grown

By Jackie Ostfeld, OAK co-founder and chair

Every year, the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) hosts a week of advocacy events in D.C. to push for more equitable access to the outdoors for children and families across the country. As our membership and participation increases, it is heartening to see the event grow each year, with 2023 being our biggest one yet. 

The first day saw 147 registered attendees that included representatives from OAK members, guests of the Blue Sky Funders Forum, various stakeholders, and dozens of youth leaders from California, Texas, Michigan, Maryland and Washington, D.C. The day started off with the customary hike in Rock Creek Park – one of the oldest national parks in our system. Sierra Club’s executive director Ben Jealous joined the attendees as we split into five groups to walk some of the many trails found in the park. For many, including most of the youth invited to the event who were not local, it was their first time experiencing Rock Creek Park. Participants enjoyed learning about the local flora from the hike leaders.

OAK Week attendees prepare for a hike at Rock Creek Park. (Photo Credit: Chris Rief)

The hike was followed by a series of panels around closing the nature gap, one featuring emerging young leaders in the fight for outdoor access and environmental justice, and the other featuring stakeholders from government bodies and non-governmental organizations. The first panel of guests were able to share insights on what drew them to environmental justice work, what inspired them to take action, what they’re looking for from the people in power, and the need for the people in power to listen to more young voices. The second panel was a discussion on the ways the guests’ organizations try to engage youth in the work without talking over them and include them in the decision making processes.

OAK Week attendees post with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland at Rock Creek Park. (Photo Credit: Chris Rief)

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland accepted our invitation to the event and gave the keynote address, reaffirming the administration’s and her own commitment to ensuring equitable outdoor access for everyone.

“We’re doing our best to make sure that every single kid out there no matter how old they are, even if they’re 62 like me, have the opportunity to have the chance to hike, fish, camp, explore the outside no matter where they live or how much money their parents or they have,” she said during her address.

Opportunities to connect and mingle were weaved between the various scheduled sessions as people united by the desire to get more children outdoors came together and listened, talked, ate, took photos, played games, and even shared meditative moments of silence. As part of the day in Rock Creek Park, we also helped host a listening session that’s part of the Department of Interior’s ongoing listening tour to find out what nature means to various groups of people, youths in this case.

OAK Week attendees participate in a Department of the Interior listening tour session at Rock Creek Park. (Photo Credit: Chris Rief)

The day was bookended with the OAK annual awards ceremony, held on the rooftop of The Wilderness Society’s building. Looking over the city, OAK members and stakeholders came together again to uplift the efforts and talents of folks like Ambreen Tariq, who founded Brown People Camping, Saanvi Mylavarapu, the National Park Trust Youth Ambassador, and Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Jimmy Gomez for their work on the Transit to Trails legislation. The full list of awardees is available online.

OAK Week attendees pose in front of the Capitol building before going in to meet representatives. (Photo Credit: Chris Rief)

The second day was distinctly different. Instead of wearing cargo pants and surrounded by green trees, the 55 attendees at Lobby Day were in skirts and slacks and ready to explore Capitol Hill. The day started with a training session hosted at the Sierra Club D.C. office before the group made the short walk to Capitol Hill where they conducted 27 meetings with representatives and their staff to share their personal stories and encourage legislators to support the Outdoors For All Act, Transit to Trails Act, and fund the Every Kid Outdoors program. The youths in particular were engaged and excited to be advocating for their own rights and for future generations. It was an educational and empowering experience for everyone involved. The high schoolers from Detroit were able to share their stories directly with members of Congress, including their own representative Shri Thanedar, who took time to talk with them and pose for pictures, as did Rep. Jimmy Gomez from California.

Rep. Shri Thanedar talks with Hamtramck High School students and other OAK Week attendees. (Photo Credit: Chris Rief)

We finished out OAK Week in the best way possible, as OAK, Blue Sky Funders Forum and Friends of Anacostia National Park organized a field trip to Anacostia National Park for attendees to enjoy the sunshine and remember the reason we’re all advocating for more equitable access to the outdoors. Booths were set up for crafts, roller skating, boat rides on the Anacostia River by the Anacostia Watershed Society, food, dancing, volleyball, and more.

This year was OAK’s biggest OAK Week yet, and I look forward to saying that again next year.

Outdoors Alliance for Kids Celebrates Leadership with 2023 Annual Awards

Previous awardees of the OAK Acorn Award Tigran Nahabedian, Lily Kay and Uriel Llanas stand next to 2023 winners Nazma Begum (second from left) and Saanvi Mylavarapu (third from left).

The Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) annual awards were delivered last week during OAK’s annual advocacy week in D.C. Established in 2016, they are bestowed yearly on OAK members and decision-makers for significant contributions toward advancing opportunities for children, youth, and families to connect with nature. 

This year, 12 people were celebrated for their leadership and work to get more youths and families in nature, whether it was through starting outdoors clubs in their schools, organizing field trips, or working to enact important legislation.

“The work we do as the Outdoors Alliance for Kids can’t be done alone,” said Jackie Ostfeld, co-founder and chair of OAK. “It’s only through the collaboration and support of hundreds of individuals and organizations as part of OAK and outside of it that we have been able to implement policies and programs that help to close the nature gap like the federal Every Kid Outdoors program and similar state-level programs, as well as legislation like the recently reintroduced Transit to Trails Act.”

The awards are broken up into four categories: Acorn, Leaf, Tree, and Canopy.

The Acorn Awards are given to youth who exemplify leadership in connecting youth people with the outdoors. This year’s awardees are:

  • Nazma Begum, a Hamtramck High School student, who started the Hamtramck High School Adventure Club and was a teacher/leader in Hamtramck’s Recreation Department’s Summer Playground Program.
  • Saanvi Mylavarapu, National Park Trust Youth Ambassador, for her work founding an environmental and ecology club at her school and runs ‘Nature Worthy,’ a nonprofit organization.

“I am honored to receive ‘OAK Acorn Award’ for the recognition of my efforts to bring awareness to get kids and teenagers to spend time outdoors and connect with nature, while also hosting drives and campaigns to make the community more eco-friendly,” said Mylavarapu. “The more time we spend with nature, we can reduce our carbon footprint. We don’t have to save the planet, but let’s not spoil it!”

The Leaf Awards are given to OAK members – individual or as an organization – who have gone above and beyond to support OAK goals. This year’s awardee is:

  • Ambreen Tariq, founder of Brown People Camping, a social media platform promoting diversity, equity and access in the outdoors through storytelling.

The Tree Awards are given to decision-makers at the federal, state, or local level who have worked to create change in connecting kids with nature. This year’s awardees are:

  • Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for her Nature Awaits program
  • Sen. Cory Booker, for his work on the Transit to Trails Act

“I am truly honored to be recognized by the Outdoors Alliance for Kids with the Tree Award,” said Sen. Booker. “We know how important it is to connect our youth with nature and the benefits it has for their mental well-being and physical development. I’m working hard in Congress, including with my Transit to Trails Act, to break down barriers and ensure that every child, regardless of their circumstances, can experience the beauty and benefits of the great outdoors. I share this recognition with all the dedicated individuals and organizations who are working tirelessly to close the nature gap. Let’s continue working to create a brighter future and a cleaner environment for our children.”

  • Rep. Jimmy Gomez, for his work on the Transit to Trails Act

“Getting out in nature is essential for children’s mental health and physical wellbeing. I introduced the Transit to Trails Act to remove barriers between our cities and our parks, because every kid deserves to play outside, no matter where they live,” said Rep. Gomez. “I applaud OAK and the Sierra Club for their advocacy fighting for opportunities for kids to connect with nature and thank them for this recognition.”

  • Sen. Alex Padilla, for his work on the Outdoors for All Act

“As a father to three boys, I know how important it is for our kids to play outside and fully benefit from all that nature has to offer,” said Sen. Padilla. “Everyone deserves access to the outdoors regardless of zip code, that’s why I will continue to champion efforts in the Senate to improve access to the outdoors, especially in most disadvantaged communities.”

  • Sen. Susan Collins, for her work on the Outdoors for All Act
  • New Mexico State Sen. Steven Neville, for his work on the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund
  • New Mexico State Sen. Peter Wirth, for his work on the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund
  • New Mexico State Rep. Nathan Small, for his work on the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund

The Canopy Awards recognize lifetime achievement for individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership in multi-sector collaboration to get kids outdoors. The very first Canopy awardee is: 

  • Bob Ratcliffe, for his work in the recreation community and collaborative work with OAK, first as a leader at the Bureau of Land Management, and more recently during more than a decade of service as Chief of Recreation at the National Park Service.

There’s Federal Funding to Close the Nature Equity Gap – If You Apply For It

Runners in a park in Boston. (Photo Credit: iStock.com, Orbon Alija)

by Jackie Ostfeld, OAK co-founder and chair

The climate and nature equity crises are two sides of the same coin – the same communities that lack access to nearby nature are also experiencing the brunt of climate change impacts. 

A history of racist land-use policies like redlining and sacrifice zones have led to communities gutted by poorly planned neighborhoods and lacking access to safe, healthy, nearby nature. Disadvantaged and underserved communities suffer disproportionately from the impacts of flooding, excessive heat, air pollution and a dearth of open space to run, play, and improve health. 

Last year, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the most significant investment to address the climate crisis in U.S. history. The Biden Administration has been rolling out programs across the federal government to accelerate progress on mitigating the worst of the climate crisis and to reinvest in communities hardest hit by its impacts. The IRA, along with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other federal sources, provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the climate crisis, close the nature equity gap, and build a thriving future for our children and grandchildren. But we need to ensure the communities who have suffered the results of disinvestment for far too long are first in line for these resources.

While there are many opportunities created by these new laws, today I am sharing five critical current or upcoming programs that can help close the nature equity gap and support environmental justice. 

  1. Urban and Community Forestry Inflation Reduction Grants

The U.S. Forest Service just provided its notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) for the Urban and Community Forestry Program (UCFP), which received a $1.5 billion injection over 10 years through the IRA. The program has the potential to create tree cover in low-income urban areas, providing critical support for communities experiencing excessive heat and air pollution. 

For cities like Philadelphia, increasing tree canopy from 20 to 30% could prevent 400 premature heat-related deaths. Tree canopy is an important nature-based climate solution to reduce urban heat island impacts, clean our air, and ensure urban access to nature. This program offers opportunities to increase tree canopies in communities struggling with heat and flooding, access to green jobs in communities with high needs, promotes shared stewardship, and other methods of addressing environmental justice issues.

UCFP is a Justice40-covered program, which means at least 40 percent of the program’s investments will go to disadvantaged and underserved communities. Typically the program requires projects to be at least 50% funded by a separate, non-federal source, but this match requirement is waived for proposals that deliver 100% of the program benefits to disadvantaged communities. State and local government entities, federally recognized Tribes and Tribal organizations, nonprofit organizations, public and state controlled institutions of higher education, and community-based organizations are all eligible for this funding. Apply by June 1, 2023. 

  1. Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership

The Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership is a long-standing yearly program that offers funding to disadvantaged communities with little or no access to nearby public outdoor recreation. It’s the National Park Service’s only park equity program funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The funding can be used to acquire, develop or renovate public parks and other outdoor recreation spaces, including supporting facilities and infrastructure such as restrooms, lighting, and parking areas as part of a larger recreation development project. ORLP-funded projects include the Belle Isle Park Athletic Complex in Detroit, Michigan, Manhattan Marsh Park in Toledo, Ohio, and Three Mile Creek Greenway Project in Mobile, Alabama.

The current round of funding offers $192 million in grants, and NPS will be accepting applications through May 31, 2023. 

  1. Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants

The Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants are $3 billion of funding going to a handful of programs with the goal of supporting projects that advance environmental justice, either through directly funding community-led projects that deal with public climate and health risks or supporting community-based organizations with their efforts to invest in their local communities.

The Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmaking Program offers grants to community-based nonprofit organizations to design and implement subgrants to reduce barriers to federal funding and increase efficiency of distributing the funds. Applications will be accepted through May 31, 2023.

The block grants are another program under the Justice40 initiative, ensuring at least 40 percent of the funding goes to disadvantaged and underserved communities.

  1. Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program

The Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program is a recently piloted initiative to reconnect communities that have been affected by past transportation infrastructure decisions, which includes roads that have cut off access to public parks. The program offers planning grants, technical assistance, and capital construction grants. It is funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

One of the communities that received funding through the pilot program’s first round is Buffalo’s East Side in New York state, which caps part of the Kensington Expressway to restore previously continuous green space in the community, right next to the Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

Roads, parkways, rail lines and other transportation infrastructure that are functioning as barriers to community connectivity are all eligible for this program. Units of state, local, and Tribal government as well as nonprofit organizations may all apply. The current round of funding is closed.

  1. Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant Program

Similar to the Reconnecting Communities Program, the Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant Program will provide grants for removing, replacing, or retrofitting highways and freeways to improve community connectivity. The goal of the program is to improve walkability, affordable transportation, mitigate infrastructure impacts on underserved communities and the natural environment, and improve resiliency in such communities. The funding for this program comes from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, and units of government are all eligible to apply. The program is expected to open in summer 2023.

These available programs and grants allow for funding of a wide range of projects and organizations with different target goals. Whether your organization’s focus is trees, outdoor recreation, transportation or community investment, there are options and resources. 

But if applying isn’t an option, getting the word out to communities about these opportunities is key too. With all these available grants and programs, it is more important than ever to connect with your networks to ensure that the people and communities that need this money are aware of them and have the chance to apply.

To All the Fourth Graders in Michigan, Nature Awaits

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. 

Growing Stronger Together in 2022: Outdoors Alliance for Kids

by Jackie Ostfeld, OAK co-founder and chair

As we head into winter, I am welcoming the short days and long nights as an invitation to slow down, rest, and reflect. Walking through my neighborhood park on a crisp cool day, I am filled with gratitude for my nearby parks and public lands, places I go to escape the challenges of motherhood, work, the ongoing pandemic, and the climate crisis on our doorstep. But not everyone has the same easy access to nature that I do.

One-hundred million people in the U.S., including 28 million children, do not live within walking, biking, or rolling distance of a safe park of green space. The greatest disparities in access are unsurprisingly found in Black, Indigenous, Latine, Asian, and low-income communities. These same communities suffer from systemic racial injustices; greater impacts of the climate crisis and environmental pollution; and preventable and chronic disease and illness, such as obesity, heart disease, asthma as well as Covid-19. 

Access to the benefits of nature should not be a luxury for the few, but a human right for all. While we still have a long way to go to ensure all kids and families can connect with nature, the progress we made in 2022 as an alliance fills me with hope.

Here’s a look back at just a few of OAK’s accomplishments for which I am particularly grateful:

Empowered & Celebrated Youth Advocates. Youth leaders raised their voices with decision-makers at the OAK-led America the Beautiful: Connecting Youth with Public Lands and Waters hike and listening session with senior leaders in the Biden administration and through meetings with elected leaders on Capitol Hill as part of OAK Week, our annual gathering. We also celebrated youth leaders like Uriel Llanas of Detroit, Lily Kay of Dallas, and Jonna Brady of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara & Sac and Fox Nations with OAK Acorn Awards for their efforts to expand access to nature for children and youth.

Established an OAK Advisory Council. In 2022, we launched an OAK Advisory Council, adding a critical element to OAK’s organizational structure by inviting input and guidance to OAK’s staff, steering committee, and members, helping to ensure the alliance maintains a broad, diverse, and inclusive set of perspectives that help shape our direction and increase the impact of our activities. OAK’s Advisory Council members are Ayodele Abdul-Hadi, a youth leader and law student; Cheyenne Brady of the Center for Native American Youth; Robbie Bond, a youth leader and founder of Kids Speak for Parks; Anupama Joshi of the Center for Science in the Public Interest; Tigran Nahabedian, a youth leader, Junior Ranger and National Park Ambassador; and Ambreen Tariq, founder of Brown People Camping. We’re so grateful to all of our Advisors for offering their time and perspective to support OAK’s mission.

Honored Member of Congress. OAK Advisor Tigran Nahabedian led a group of children from the Art & Wilderness Institute to honor Representative Katie Porter with an OAK Tree Award for her leadership. During the event, youth spoke with the Congresswoman about why the outdoors mattered to them and shared their ideas for protecting the environment. Porter has been a champion for the Every Kid Outdoors program, which ensures free access to national parks and public lands for 4th graders and their families. Porter’s efforts have led to a $25 million investment in the program in the House Interior Appropriations bill. We are still waiting on the Senate to pass the FY23 budget. You can help make sure an investment in the Every Kid Outdoors program is included.

Celebrated Biden Administration Initiatives. OAK celebrated the Biden administration’s launch of a whole-of-government approach to promote equitable access to nature, bringing together 10 federal departments and agencies to strengthen “investments in communities who have been locked out of the benefits nature provides.” We were also pleased to see President Biden re-launch the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation (FICOR), which will work to create more safe, affordable and equitable opportunities for people to get outdoors. FICOR was originally created in 2011 and worked to establish the Every Kid Outdoors Pass before the council was suspended. Both of these efforts are part of Biden’s America the Beautiful initiative which promises to protect 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 while expanding access to nature for communities who have been historically excluded and marginalized.

None of these milestones would be possible without the passion and dedication of our staff, members, advisors, agency partners, supporters, and a growing base of grassroots advocates. I am so grateful to everyone in the OAK family who makes a difference everyday fighting for a future where all kids can experience the benefits of nature and live healthy and full lives. 

A Gala Sendoff, and an Important Reminder that Nature Heals

by Ayodele Abdul-Hadi, OAK Advisor

Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp (left) poses with Ayodele Abdul-Hadi at the 2022 Glamp Out gala.
Credit: Ayodele Abdul-Hadi

Right on the waterfront, with a serene view of the sunset and San Francisco city skyline, I was part of a group of about 200 people attending the first in-person Outdoor Afro annual Glamp Out since the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020.

The evening was a beautiful celebration of Black joy, collective healing and the great outdoors.

I was fortunate enough to attend the event along with a few other staff members from Sierra Club chapters across the U.S., including Vedia Barnett, senior campaign representative with Military Outdoors, and Alexis Schwartz, the Colorado chapter’s conservation organizer. It was so wonderful to meet in person after months of being on weekly Outdoors for All team calls. 

Pastor Betty Clark opened the event with a beautiful blessing and reminder that “nature heals and nourishes the community,” setting the tone for the rest of the evening.

We enjoyed a powerful performance from Youth Speaks poet and author Ashia Ajani and a lively dance from Oakland dance troupe TURFinc. Then we heard from the founder herself, Rue Mapp. She began her speech by acknowledging that Outdoor Afro was created to provide a space for Black joy to flourish in nature and that this evening was a celebration of that. Especially during the past few years, Outdoor Afro served as a healing and refuge for many people in the Black community.

Her speech was powerful, and a few of her words stood out to me. She said towards the end of her speech that, despite all the uncertainty that COVID-19 brought, “nature never closes,” which was an important reminder of the healing that the great outdoors provided folks when many of our other places of healing were closed. She ended her speech by saying, “Space is power and we all deserve to take up space in nature.” 

It was also a fitting end to my time interning for the Sierra Club. Her words particularly resonated with me because the mission of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) is geared towards access to nature and green spaces outdoors.

In my time as the OAK intern, I gained a deeper understanding of the federal policy process on a variety of important campaigns including Transit to Trails, Outdoors for All, and Every Kid Outdoors. I was also able to develop meaningful relationships across OAK membership with various organizations including The Wilderness Society and Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors. I also learned more extensively about the nationwide ecosystem of nonprofits working to improve outdoor access to nature. 

I am so grateful to have been a part of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, and as I work toward a future career in environmental law, the Sierra Club will always hold a special place in my heart.

Our Kids Are Facing a Mental Health Crisis, Nature Can Help

by Jackie Ostfeld and Monica Lopez Magee

Youth environmental activists hike in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. in May 2022.
Youth environmental activists hike in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. in May 2022.
Photo by Chris Rief

As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, children and youth continue to face upheavals in their family, social, and educational lives. Their daily routines are disrupted by exposure alerts and quarantines, they may be unable to see friends and family, and the back-and-forth of virtual and in-person schooling is taking a toll. It’s unclear when, if ever, we’ll be able to get back to normal.

Cut off from networks of support and stability, our youth are experiencing almost unprecedented exposure to trauma and loneliness. According to mental health professionals, the rates of depression and anxiety observed in young people are soaring. In December 2021, Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy declared that the United States had entered a “youth mental health crisis.” 

It will take time to address the effects of this crisis, but there is one effective measure we can take right now: get kids outdoors. We know that exposure to nature can help relieve depression and anxiety, and even help heal trauma. Multiple studies show that spending time outdoors has positive effects on physical and mental health. For young people in particular, nature exposure can boost concentration, improve social skills and even help them perform better in school. 

But getting into nature isn’t as simple as a walk in the park for many families. About 100 million people in the U.S., including 28 million children, don’t live within 10 minutes of a high-quality park or green space. The barriers can get higher when you go from a local park to a national park. Visiting these crown jewels of public lands can be an undertaking for any family, but such a trip is out of reach for the many families who cannot afford the travel, lodging, and entrance expenses they require. 

One program is bringing our national parks into reach for millions of young people. Since 2015, the Every Kid Outdoors program (EKO) has granted a full year of free entry to hundreds of national parks, lands, and waters for all fourth graders and their families. This simple program enables every fourth grader, regardless of ability to pay, the opportunity to establish a direct connection with nature — connections that can last a lifetime.

EKO has helped thousands of families take their first trip to a national park, and it continues to grow in popularity. Moreover, the program supports local economies in communities near our national parks. In the recently passed federal budget, Congress and the White House confirmed their support for EKO, officially including it in the budget for the first time. Despite their ideological differences, Democrats and Republicans agree it’s essential for children and youth to experience nature.

While Congress affirmed its support for EKO, that support doesn’t always translate to funding. In fact, since its creation nearly a decade ago, EKO has never had adequate funding to address the inequalities that prevent many youth and families from experiencing nature, like a lack of safe public transit options to public lands, limited nearby programming at parks, and the often nonexistent infrastructure for the disabled community. This is part of what we call the “nature equity gap.” It means that, while the benefits of nature are universal, access to nature is not, and that can have damaging effects on people and communities. Unfortunately, our national parks are not immune to the nature equity gap.

Time in nature offers all of us a chance to restore and heal from the stress and negative impacts of things like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, social unrest, and other crises happening around the world. Supporting EKO and helping the program reach its full potential will ensure that the ability to pay isn’t a prerequisite for experiencing public lands, allowing more families and young people to recover from grief, disruption, and trauma — and develop connections to the natural world that will nurture new generations of environmental advocates.

Jackie Ostfeld is the Director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors For All campaign, and Co-founder and Chair of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids. 

Monica Lopez Magee is Senior Vice President for Cities and Community Engagement at the Children & Nature Network. Monica serves on OAK’s steering committee.

California Rep. Katie Porter Receives Outdoors Alliance for Kids Award

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Natasha Blakely, natasha.blakely@sierraclub.org;
Lindsay Reilly, lindsay.reilly@mail.house.gov

IRVINE, CA – Yesterday, the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) recognized Rep. Katie Porter of California’s 45th district for her leadership in connecting kids to the outdoors. OAK is a partnership of over a hundred organizations, including the Sierra Club and REI, with a goal of facilitating those connections.

“Our country is blessed with beautiful public lands and national parks, especially right here in California,” said Rep. Katie Porter. “These treasures belong to every American, and every American should have the opportunity to enjoy them. I’m a proud champion of the Every Kid Outdoors program because it teaches young people about the importance of our natural resources, makes it easier for families to take affordable vacations, and boosts local economies.”

The OAK Tree Award is an annual award presented by the Outdoors Alliance for Kids to decision-makers leading the way in ensuring outdoor equity for kids and families. Rep. Porter has been a champion for the Every Kid Outdoors program, which ensures free access to national parks and public lands for 4th graders and their families. Porter’s efforts have led to a $25 million investment in the program in the House Interior Appropriations bill. 

“I have been very fortunate to advocate and promote the Every Kid in a Park and Every Kid Outdoors programs,” said OAK Youth Leader and Advisor Tigran Nahabedian. “Time in the outdoors teaches important lessons and skills and is vital to childhood development. It is a well-known fact that spending time outdoors has positive mental and physical health benefits. For young people, nature can be especially powerful. Physical activity and exposure to the outdoors improves performance in school, engages children, builds healthier bodies and boosts confidence leading to greater opportunities and success later in life. We are fortunate to have organizations committed to our youth and champions like Representative Katie Porter.”

OAK Advisor Tigran Nahabedian delivering OAK Tree Award to Rep. Katie Porter; photo courtesy of Rep. Porter’s office.

The award ceremony was held at Rep. Porter’s office in Irvine where Nahabedian presented the award to Rep. Porter. Also in attendance were children from the Art and Wilderness Institute and their parents as well as members of OAK. 

“It is our human right to access wilderness areas,” said Art and Wilderness Institute Director Sama Wareh. “With mental health cases on the rise, our best preventative medicine is going to be spending more time outdoors and less time inside. To do that, we need easy access to open space. Besides, the historical mark of an intelligent and compassionate society is by how much open space we value. In addition, climate change is a reality, a shameful one, we have left for this next generation to deal with. The least we can do is preserve and restore habitat. It’s our duty as inheritors of this earth.”

Youth from Art & Wilderness Institute sharing their ideas for getting outdoors and protecting the environment with Rep. Katie Porter; photo courtesy of Rep. Porter’s office.

The Every Kid Outdoors program has been one of the focuses of OAK, alongside other programs geared toward improving the health and wellness of both children and the planet through access to nature.

“Young people and children need early and consistent exposure to nature to support their healthy physical and mental development,” said OAK co-founder and chair and Sierra Club Outdoors for All campaign director Jackie Ostfeld. “The Every Kid Outdoors program is a vital part of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids’ efforts to ensure that children are getting that exposure. Increasing investments in the program, like Rep. Porter seeks to do, will ensure Every Kid Outdoors reaches kids with the greatest barriers to access.”

The attending children had the opportunity at the event to share about why access to the outdoors is important for children like them. 

“Time outside and our connection to nature is fundamental to the social, cultural and physical health and well-being of all people,” said REI Tustin Store Manager Eric Piper. “But millions of Americans lack access to nature and thriving outdoor spaces. Scores of others do not feel safe or a sense of belonging outdoors–stemming from ongoing systems of inequity, injustice and racism. The REI Co-operative is here to create the largest positive climate community and enable equitable access to the outdoors.”

Additional photos from event are available at request.

About the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK)

OAK is a national strategic partnership of organizations from diverse sectors with a common interest in connecting children, youth, and families with the outdoors. The members of OAK are brought together by the belief that the wellness of current and future generations, the health of our planet and communities and the economy of the future depend on humans having a personal, direct, and life-long relationship with nature and the outdoors. OAK brings together more than 100 businesses and organizations to address the growing divide between children, youth, and the outdoors. http://www.outdoorsallianceforkids.org

About Rep. Katie Porter

Congresswoman Porter has been a consistent advocate for environmental protection throughout her time in Congress. She’s introduced legislation to raise fees on polluters extracting from public lands, spearheaded bipartisan efforts to improve disaster response and resiliency, and repeatedly urged her colleagues to take bold, urgent action to fight the climate crisis. In 2021, she chaired a Congressional hearing and listening session in Orange County on a major oil leak off the coast of Huntington Beach.

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.

My one wish is that every child has the RIGHT to outdoor access and public lands

by Tigran Nahabedian, OAK Advisor

Time in nature teaches important lessons and skills, and is vital to our children’s development. But right now, access to parks and public lands is not equal across our communities, and climate change is increasingly affecting the green spaces we do have. One hundred million people in the US – including 28 million kids – cannot walk to a park from their homes. This is the so-called “nature equity gap.” The disadvantages resulting from deprivation from nature are no less serious than illiteracy for future success; imagine living in fear of the outdoors or never learning to swim.

Tell Congress that every community deserves equitable access to nature so they can truly thrive.
Send your message to Congress now!

Junior Ranger Tigran Nahabedian | Photo Courtesy of Tigran Nahabedian

I visited Channel Islands National Park for the first time when I was five years old. During that trip, one of the park naturalists gave me a Junior Ranger book, and I was hooked. It was one of the best days of my life and it inspired my life-long love of nature and our public lands.

Even though I went to a school that promoted getting outside and camping, none of my friends had heard of Channel Islands or the Junior Ranger program! It astounded me that so many kids didn’t know about national parks or what was even in their own backyards. From that moment on, I made it my mission to improve outdoor access for kids like me.

Now I need your help! Congress is considering several bills that are critical to expand outdoor access and help kids experience the benefits of nature. We need to make it clear to Congress that our youth MUST be able to access and make connections with nature!

I know firsthand that places like the Channel Islands National Park (with some of the earliest human remains in North America), Manassas National Battlefield, the Statue of Liberty, Belmont-Paul House, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and Manzanar National Historic Site (which serves as a cautionary tale of allowing our American ideals to slip), and so many more are symbols of our history. 

Our public lands are places where we can preserve the cultures, histories, and traditions of the communities connected to these places. That is why we need to call on Congress to help get more kids and families outdoors!

My one wish is that every child has the RIGHT to explore the country’s public lands and make the connections with nature that have helped define my life. I truly believe this would not only benefit kids themselves, but also our nation as a whole. There is no better way to learn about history and what makes our country and public lands unique than by going out there and seeing them firsthand.

We need to tell Congress to close the nature equity gap so that more kids can experience the benefits and beauty of nature!

Thank you for all you do,

Tigran Nahabedian
Advisor, Outdoors Alliance for Kids
Junior Ranger, National Parks Ambassador, and Board Member for the Channel Islands Park Foundation
P.S. Don’t forget to include a personal message about why nature equity and outdoor access for kids is important to you!

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