Nearly one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to feel the enormity of its toll on public health and disruptions in our daily routines. We are living in a new normal of face masks, social distancing, remote school and work, Amazon deliveries, and takeout meals.
As we anticipate the promise of vaccines now being administered, it is hard not to dream about a return to our pre-COVID lives. But perhaps the pandemic has taught us a few things that suggest a return to normalcy is not the best solution, especially when it comes to ensuring the future of our public lands and how we care for them.
As COVID-19 curtailed many of our activities starting last spring, Coloradans gratefully sought relief in the outdoors. We visited public lands in record numbers, overfilling trailhead parking lots with our cars and canines in tow, even as trash services were curtailed and bathroom facilities closed.
We watched in awe and dismay as the hot summer progressed into fall and the three largest wildfires in our state’s history burned over a half-million acres, destroying homes and shuttering beloved state and national parks.
Challenges like the ones we experienced in 2020 often appear so large in scale that we become numb to recognizing our own individual impacts and the effect our personal decisions have on the well being of others and on the land.
Yet, there are no vaccines on the horizon to ensure our public lands remain healthy and strong well into the future.
From our personal lives to our socioeconomic systems, the events of 2020 offer us an opportunity to reflect on what we want in post-pandemic “normalcy.” This is our chance to look at our public lands through a new lens, thinking critically about what our “normal” was and working together to move towards a healthier, more sustainable future for the natural environment.
After all, the health of these places is essential not only to our state’s culture and economy, but also for safeguarding residents against climate stress and making healthy lifestyles more equitably accessible as our population grows. Every Coloradan is impacted by what happens to the natural world, and every Coloradan who is able to – especially those that enjoy these spaces on a regular basis – must make an active investment in the long-term care of their parks, trails, and open spaces.
Businesses that benefit from busy trailheads and employees’ desire for an outdoor lifestyle can no longer afford to be bystanders as trails erode or close. As municipalities grapple with how to manage development responsibly, they must consider the inequities in climate impacts and access to nature, prioritizing green spaces and climate-forward policies.
Recreationists can no longer be passive consumers of public lands, nor can they treat the outdoors as a personal playground to be used and potentially abused for their enjoyment.
Being a responsible visitor by staying on trails and practicing Leave No Trace principles is the bare minimum. On and off the trail, we must be active in our advocacy for natural spaces.
Here are three ways to start:
- Speak up: Respond to requests for community input on trail development or park improvement plans. Help educate others by sharing information about these issues alongside your hiking selfies and summit photos. Make your voice heard for the places you care about, as well as for others. Equitable access to these spaces has long been a challenge, and we must advocate for everyone to reap the public health benefits of spending time outside.
- Get hands-on: See what’s at stake and experience the effort it takes to maintain public lands by volunteering with land management agencies and stewardship organizations. You’ll get instant gratification from making a visible impact while deepening your understanding of the challenges facing your favorite places.
- Fight for funding: There is a multi-million-dollar backlog of maintenance needs on public lands throughout Colorado. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, Rocky Mountain National Park alone reported $78 million worth of deferred maintenance in 2019. Donate to environmental nonprofits working on-the-ground and in the Capitol to address these issues.
While the problems facing our public lands can be daunting, they are not insurmountable if we all play our part. Start small by learning who is responsible for managing your favorite places: reach out and see what they need; follow them on social media; talk with your local park ranger. Use your time, money, and/or advocacy to invest in the nonprofit and community organizations that support them.
Systemic change cannot happen without individual involvement and, while the time to act is overdue, it is not too late. You can help guide Colorado towards a better future for yourself, your children, and your neighbors for generations to come.
Luis Benítez is vice president for government affairs and global impact at Denver-based VF Corporation, parent of The North Face, JanSport, Timberland and other brands. Ann Baker Easley is CEO of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado.
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