We are all in the middle of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic filled with huge unknowns. What we do know is a whole new way of approaching day-to-day life, including the difficult task of social distancing.

The good news is we are told by public health experts we can still get outside and connect with nature — as long as we keep at least six feet away from others, stay relatively local and don’t travel afar to vulnerable destinations.

Our Colorado great outdoors now takes on an even greater meaning than usual, a rejuvenating window of freedom in a world that requires us to be confined.

Arthur P. Foley Board Member, Continental Divide Trail Coalition

Shortly before the pandemic began to affect us here in the U.S., Congress was on the path to enacting strong bipartisan outdoor conservation measures, including the full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), America’s most important conservation program. 

It has become imperative now that when Congress returns from recess, they follow through with passing this legislation to optimally protect public lands. 

For, not only are parks and public spaces a tonic for our well-being, outdoor recreation access, fueled by LWCF grants, is and will be a potent stimulus for our economic recovery and should be part of the next stimulus package Congress undertakes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

LWCF was created in 1964 and is responsible for protecting parks, wildlife refuges and recreation areas and the continued historic preservation of our nation’s iconic landmarks in nearly every county in America, including the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT). In fact, it is the only tool that federal agencies have to complete the CDT.

LWCF investments contribute greatly to a massive $887 billion national outdoor recreation economy. In Colorado, LWCF has protected destinations like Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes national parks on the federal side.

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On the state and local sides, it helps fund places like Golden Gate Canyon and Roxborough state parks, and Sloan’s Lake in Denver. All of these play an important role in growing Colorado’s lucrative $28 billion annual outdoor recreation economy.  

To demonstrate what support of LWCF and public lands in general means, in a 2019 CDTC survey of the small businesses in our gateway communities across all five trail states, 88% saw economic growth in the community due to CDT and 87% said protecting public lands through LWCF was important to their community.

Remarkably, LWCF uses royalties paid by offshore oil and gas drillers to fund projects and costs taxpayers nothing. While it was originally intended to be funded at $900 million annually, for most years half of the money has been diverted for non-conservation purposes. 

But this March — literally days before the pandemic halted life as we know it — President Donald Trump asked Congress to draw up legislation for full funding. The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), which combines LWCF full funding with addressing the $12-18 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks and across our public lands trails, now sits in the Senate.  

As we are seeing in our rural western communities and across the nation, travel and tourism have taken a devastating hit in the current crisis.

Passage of GAOA would provide an incredible tool to put people back to work and support the travel and tourism industries, not only by fixing the existing infrastructure in our parks and lands, but by expanding places for people to fish, hike, hunt and get outside.

It will be an enormous contribution to a strong long-term recovery for all communities that rely on visitors to public lands. 

Clearly, as we look to emerge from the pandemic slowdown, including the GAOA in the coming stimulus package is essential to our national and local economic recovery. 

Ensuring a permanent investment source for our national, state and local parks, trails and public lands means they will continue to be quality of life enhancers and economic drivers for communities big and small, urban and rural.   

According to a Trust for Public Land analysis, every dollar invested in LWCF returns at least $4 in economic benefits, which means that each year we invest the full $900 million in our parks and public lands, we reap $3.6 billion in economic activity. This is the kind of local and national economic stimulus we need right now.  

We urge our Colorado congresspeople to help pass full funding for LWCF in the coming stimulus packages. It is essential to our recovery post-pandemic.

Arthur P. Foley is a board member of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. He lives in Colorado Springs.

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: afoley@ret.unca.edu