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Opinion Columns

Opinion: On Earth Day, let’s consider the health of our planet and of Colorado

A lot of us are now quarantined at home, socially distancing ourselves from our neighbors, and trying to keep our kids from spending all their time playing video games or going stir crazy.

This is especially hard in a state where many of us have garages full of recreational equipment specially designed for each season, and where we often take for granted getting outdoors with our friends to recreate among the 22 million acres of public lands nestled among our beautiful mountains.

Eric Washburn, a big game hunter from Steamboat Springs.

The Colorado lifestyle — skiing, camping, climbing, hiking, wildlife watching, hunting and fishing — is the reason so many of us have chosen to live here. And when you call up your friends and head out together into the wilderness it makes you appreciate the lands and the lifestyle that much more.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2020 in the midst of a pandemic, we think about our health and that of our loved ones, and about when we will be able to put social distancing behind us and get outside with our friends and family.

There is a growing body of research demonstrating the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in nature. In Colorado, our public lands are a place where we can go to improve our health and well-being and perhaps even add years to our lives.

Earth Day is also a time when we need to think about the health of our public lands. Climate change will damage habitat, accelerate the ongoing extinction crisis and drain our public lands of their natural robust health. Adding roads, more houses, and other development to these lands may further threaten our mountain ecosystems.

That’s why we need to act now. The Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Michael Bennet, is the most meaningful effort to protect our state’s most cherished lands, waters and forests in a generation — and it currently is stuck in the Senate, having passed the House six months ago.

If we do not take the steps necessary to protect our treasured outdoors, we will deprive generations of Coloradans of their heritage.

For some, it is enough to know that the wilderness is there. ​Wallace Stegner wrote in ​The Sound of Mountain Water:​ “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

For many of us Coloradans, it is not enough just to drive to the edge and look in. The land still beckons to us each season to get outside, get our boots dirty and commune with nature. Now more than ever, we can’t take our magnificent public lands for granted.

It’s also impossible to disentangle the health of Colorado families from that of the planet. A ​recent study showed that people who breathe cleaner air have a lower risk of dying from COVID-19.

And there is a growing body of scientific evidence that spending time in nature improves our overall mental and physical health. Our collective willingness to protect our environment will determine our enduring legacy — the health and wellbeing of future generations and the species with which we share this magnificent planet.

The CORE Act is a great step forward. It would provide protections for around 400,000 acres of public lands across the state, and designate Camp Hale as the nation’s first national historic landscape. It’s common sense that we need to protect wild places, clean water supplies and create sustainable recreation opportunities and in so doing preserve rural Colorado’s way of life for future generations to enjoy.

Unfortunately, Congress is still populated with too many politicians who are unwilling to take strong action on climate and protect our public lands. In the six months since the CORE Act was passed in the U.S. House, the Senate has yet to bring it to a vote.

We need our elected officials, and especially Sen. Cory Gardner, who sits on the Senate subcommittee that oversees public lands, to support and pass this vital piece of legislation.

He also needs to push back against the EPA’s efforts to dismantle key clean air and water protections. Doing so would put the interests of Coloradans first, rather than big corporate donors.

Fortunately, there are reasons for optimism. While ​the federal government rolls back key environmental protections and fails to responsibly address climate change, ​states like Colorado are leading the way in addressing the challenge of climate change and protecting wildlife migration corridors.

Hopefully Colorado’s efforts to protect its environment can inspire more thoughtful and courageous action in Washington, D.C.

Eric Washburn is a big game hunter and a member of Real American Sportsmen. He lives with his family in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.