The National Park Service turns 100 next year. What will the birthday party be like? Wild, of course! The first gift, though, is from the parks to the people: During the next school year, the Every Kid in a Park initiative will allow all fourth-grade students and their families to visit national parks, national monuments, and all other nationally protected lands for free. But then our national parks have always been giving people something that money can’t buy: The chance to experience some of our planet’s most special and spectacular places.
Of course, the Sierra Club and the National Park Service go way back. In fact, the Park Service’s first director, Stephen Mather, was an active member and honorary vice-president of the Sierra Club. And let’s face it, there wouldn’t be nearly as many parks to service were it not for Sierra Club conservation giants like David Brower and Edgar Wayburn, along with thousands of less famous but equally dedicated volunteers. So we’re ready to help get the party going.
To help celebrate this 100th anniversary, the Sierra Club plans to party down with 100 outings. Here’s the thing, though — we won’t limit ourselves to national parks. National parks are but one part of a national network of natural places that ranges from neighborhood parks to vast wildernesses. We are going to celebrate all of them because all of them have a role to play. And the role of what we call “nearby nature” is actually growing in importance.
With all the talk of growing income inequality in this country, it’s worth noting that there’s also a nature inequality. Just about anyone can appreciate and benefit from being in nature, but not everyone has equal opportunities to do so. Currently, 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, many with limited opportunities to experience nature. The work that Sierra Club volunteers have been doing for decades to take urban kids on outings has reaffirmed the difference exposure to nature can make a hundred times over. For America’s parks to thrive for the next 100 years, they need to be accessible to all Americans, not just the traditional users of the past century.
One way we can make that happen is by reminding people that there’s more to our park system than iconic destinations like Yosemite and Yellowstone. Many national parks are urban sites such as the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Little Rock Central High School, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Your nearest national park may be close enough, in fact, to qualify as a local outing. My family loves to camp. We’re packing up tonight, in fact, for a trip to Big Sur with friends. It turns out we have 10 national park destinations less than a two-hour drive from our home. How do I know this? By using the “Find Your Park” web tool that the National Park Service launched today. It’s great because it helps you find parks that are not only nearby but also relevant to your interests and abilities.
Another way to close the nature gap is to grow the network of nearby natural places that people can access easily. That’s why the Sierra Club is investing in trail projects that improve access to nature in urban areas. In Louisiana, for instance, we’re working with the local Vietnamese community and other partners to help create a trail that will connect New Orleans East to Bayou Sauvage, the largest urban wildlife refuge in America.
The importance of parks that people can reach from where they live is also why we were so excited by the designation of San Gabriel Mountains National Monument last October. The San Gabriels, which border Los Angeles, are less than 90 minutes from home for at least 15 million people. Many people worked for years to make that designation possible, but protecting those mountains has the potential to change countless lives.
We’re lucky. Over the past 150 years, we have protected a network of public lands in this country that is the envy of the entire world, and our national parks are the jewels in that crown. Let’s make sure that in the coming decades we both guard this natural legacy and ensure that it is available to all Americans.