A hiker crosses a snowfield in the Rawah Wilderness on National Forest land in the Medicine Bow mountains west of Fort Collins. (Mark Harden | The Colorado Sun)

Like many Americans my age, I spent a lot of my youth outdoors. Growing up in the wide-open spaces of Texas, I learned basic nature skills as a Boy Scout, and spent many nights outside catching fireflies with my siblings. 

Still, I’d argue that my outdoor life really began when I fell in love with and married my wife. My father-in-law and his father before served in the U.S. Forest Service, and my interest in the profession undoubtedly helped cement their favor. 

Since then, all three of us have served in the Lolo National Forest in Montana, and public lands and parks have given my family more than vacations and priceless memories — they have given us financial stability and a deep sense of pride and tradition. 

Marc Gonzalez

In this past year of tumult, America’s forests and public lands have taken on magnified meaning. With social and political fissures threatening to break families and long beloved relationships, and COVID-19 imperiling the health of our communities and our economies, Americans across the country are looking for space to find connections and heal.

Protected public lands have always been that space, and now even more.

Thankfully, Colorado has just voted in Sen.-elect John Hickenlooper, a longtime advocate for the health benefits of outdoor recreation for families who understands the impact the great outdoors has on Colorado businesses. 

According to the Colorado’s 2019 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, created by then-Gov. Hickenlooper, the outdoor industry in Colorado alone generates 511,000 jobs and contributes $62.5 billion to Colorado’s economy. It also generates $21.4 billion in wages and salaries, and $9.4 billion in local, state, and federal tax revenue.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

It’s no surprise that Sen.-elect Hickenlooper won his seat in part by promising to be a champion of public lands — pledging to support the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a bill which, among much else, designates historic Camp Hale near Leadville as the first National Historic Landscape. 

The U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which trained at Camp Hale, helped lead our nation to victory in World War II, then went on to help create the outdoor industry as we know it today. 

As a veteran, I can’t think of a better symbol of resilience and togetherness, and I’m eager to see the new senator make good on his pledge to voters.

Hickenlooper won’t be alone in his fight since lawmakers in the House and Senate from both sides of the aisle have come together in recent years to pass important legislation like the Great American Outdoors Act, which fully and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, America’s primary source for preserving irreplaceable landscapes and cultural heritage sites, and addresses the critical maintenance backlog in our national parks system. 

Our new Congress must now build on that momentum and continue to protect, preserve, and expand access to public lands with passage of the CORE Act.

As you might expect, my family has often retreated to the outdoors during the past year to reconnect with each other and root ourselves during a global pandemic.  We’ve observed that we aren’t the only ones. 

Our favorite “hidden” spots now have plenty of visitors, and it’s becoming clearer that our nation needs more community places — more parks and playgrounds, hiking trails and campgrounds. 

To facilitate that growth sustainably, we need increased funding for additional personnel and facilities that will absorb the flux of new tourists in our nation’s beloved public spaces.

2021 should bring somewhat of a rebirth for the nation, with a COVID vaccine and a new government.  I am eager to see what Washington can do for the American people in the coming year – how it legislates to best serve families and careers like mine, reliant on the outdoors for so much. 

I’m especially excited to see our Colorado delegation lead that charge.

Marc Gonzalez of Colorado Springs served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Navy Reserve for 28 years.

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Marc Gonzalez

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: m.c.gonzalez@me.com