Tomorrow people and organizations across the country will be coming together to celebrate Public Lands Day. They'll be volunteering at parks, clearing trails and picking up trash-- donating their valuable time to give back to places they care deeply about. This love of our country's special places is deeply ingrained in the American spirit and has become enmeshed with an increasingly important outdoor economy.
For decades politicians have respected this love of nature and acted to protect the places that people love. Every president since the signing of the Wilderness Act 50 years ago has signed wilderness legislation; more than 120 national monuments have been designated, with almost one-third going on to gain additional protections as part of our National Park System through Congressional action; and poll after poll has shown that voters favor those that support public lands.
Over the years I've served on many political committees, worked on campaigns, and organized Get Out the Vote efforts. I've seen first-hand how an appreciation of public lands, whether the park down the street or the dreamed-of visit to a wilderness area, threads its way through all levels of politics.
Perhaps it is the 'DC bubble' that caused the disconnect, but today many politicians seem to have lost touch with the essence of the American outdoors and its importance to their constituents. Public lands are not an abstract idea or merely illustrative of an ideology, but actual places that have real power to improve people's everyday lives.
Recently I had the privilege to attend a public meeting held by the Obama administration on the future of California's San Gabriel Mountains. These mountains are within an hour's drive of more than 17 million people in Southern California. Their clear, cold rivers, pine forests and chaparral hills draw millions of visitors each year who come to spend time with family, hike, bike or fish. As a Glendale resident, I am fortunate to be able to enjoy the San Gabriel Mountains often. I still vividly remember going on numerous hikes and just feeling connected to nature in a holistic way. And the fall trails to Sturtevant Falls in the Chantry Flat area never fails to amaze me.
The forests and mountains of the San Gabriels provide more than 70 percent of the open space in Los Angeles County. It's a crucial resource for many in an area where a shortage of parks and open space limits opportunities to be physically active and connect with nature. The area also provides one-third of the drinking water for the thirsty county.
So important to the local communities are the San Gabriels that hundreds of people turned out for the public meeting--so many in fact that people overflowed the building. There was a clear consensus that the area should be permanently protected. It's a feeling supported by recent polling, which found that four in five Los Angeles County voters supported protecting the San Gabriel Mountains and rivers. Not surprisingly, more than two-thirds of those voters polled also said they would have a more favorable impression of a "candidate for public office if he or she supported this proposal regarding providing greater protection and attention to the San Gabriel Mountains and rivers."
Permanently protecting the San Gabriels would enhance the visitor experience by improving facilities, services and staffing, while also ensuring that the beloved natural, historic and scenic treasures of the San Gabriel Mountains are preserved for future generations.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) has recognized the importance of preserving the San Gabriels and has asked President Obama to protect them by designating a San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. I echo her call, as do so many of my neighbors. A national monument would have a real and beneficial influence on our lives. It's time for our leaders to reconnect with the power of protected public lands.
Reyes is a board member of the Sierra Club.