Access to nature is a human right, but far too many communities face barriers preventing them from experiencing the benefits of parks and green spaces. Whether it’s a lack of close-to-home natural areas, the cost of transportation, or extreme heat caused by climate change, low-income communities are suffering from the nature equity gap. Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All team, working alongside our chapters, beloved partners and young leaders, has made significant strides to expand outdoor access this year. There’s still a long way to go, but what we have managed to achieve so far deserves to be celebrated.
Here’s a look at some of our collective accomplishments:
Celebrated historic investments in nearby nature: The campaign celebrated two significant milestones on our path to ensure all kids and families have neighborhood level access to green space, when the Biden-Harris administration made historic investments in tree equity and local parks projects. With funds released through the Inflation Reduction Act, the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program was able to dole out $1 billion to invest in tree planting projects to combat extreme heat, improve air quality, and provide more green spaces for communities with limited nature access. The National Park Service’s Outdoor Recreation and Legacy Partnership (ORLP) Program invested $22 million in local park equity projects and committed to spend more than $2oo million in projects next year, the largest investment since the program was established in 2014.
Advocated to expand nearby nature: We’re also working with partners to ensure the ORLP Program continues regardless of who holds political office. The program was eliminated during the Trump Administration and reinstated during the Biden Administration’s first 100 days. We’re working to pass the bipartisan Outdoors for All Act to ensure the program lives on and continues to grow and serve more communities lacking nature access. Just last month, our new Executive Director Ben Jealous joined Representatives Barragan (D-CA-41) and Fitzpatrick (R-PA-1) as well as our partners to call for the passage of the bill. We’re making great progress, as we’ve ensured the bill is part of a larger outdoor recreation package that is working its way through Congress as I write this blog.
Ensured More Kids Can Get Outdoors: We made significant progress in expanding the federal Every Kid Outdoors program, which provides fourth graders and their families with free entry into all federally-managed parks and public lands, at the state level. This year, we celebrated a victory with our Michigan Chapter and Detroit Outdoors partners when Governor Whitmer established the Nature Awaits program to fund field trips for every fourth grader, more than 1.4 million kids, in the state of Michigan to visit a state park.
Secured Green Jobs for Young People: We were also thrilled to welcome the creation of the American Climate Corps which promises to put more than 20,000 young people on a pathway to jobs that will address our climate crisis, protect our planet and strengthen our communities. The campaign has been advocating for an expansion of career pathway programs for youth and young veterans for more than a decade. President Biden’s commitment puts us on a path towards creating a cleaner and greener economy for generations to come.
Uplifted Youth Voices: Along with our partners in the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) we brought 150 people, including 40 youth leaders, to our annual OAK Week. Youth leaders participated in listening sessions with the Biden-Harris administration, shared their ideas for closing the nature gap with land and water agency officials, and got to meet Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Young leaders joined us from many places, including our Detroit Outdoors partnership and Baltimore Inspiring Communities Outdoors program. We also delivered nearly 1,000 postcards written by kids in their local REI stores directly to decision-makers, asking them to make the outdoors more accessible for kids and families.
Got More Veterans in Parks: We celebrated as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration announced that it would be granting all Michigan veterans free access to state parks, a move which will increase opportunities for more than 500,000 veterans to access the healing benefits of the outdoors. Michigan is the newest Sierra Club chapter to join our Military Outdoors campaign, bringing the total chapters engaged to nine.
Listened to Veterans: With our chapters and partners, we launched a nationwide listening tour and online survey for veterans and active-duty military members to hear what veterans and servicemembers want and need when it comes to accessing the outdoors. The first session was held in Augusta, Georgia. The information we gather will be used to support our local Military Outdoors campaigns and shape our advocacy with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Task Force on Outdoor Recreation for Veterans.
Lifted Up Our Parks Too!: We partnered with two young women – Kristen Walker and Diamon Clark – to help them launch Our Parks Too!, an online project where they log their journey to visit all the national parks and showcase Black joy in the outdoors.
Amidst so many challenges plaguing our planet and her people right now, I find it helpful to reflect on the positive progress our movement is making in our corner of the world. I want to thank all of our staff, volunteers, partners, supporters, members and leaders in the movement for persevering through challenging times and delivering another banner year for outdoor equity and access. As I look ahead to the new year, I know that we are stronger than ever before and will be able to take even greater strides towards closing the nature equity gap. May everyone have a restful and restorative holiday season filled with time outdoors. We’ll see you in the new year.