Let’s be thankful for our national parks — before they’re too expensive to visit

Let’s be thankful for our national parks — before they’re too expensive to visit
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Shenandoah National Park is my home away from home. The park is where my partner and I took our son camping for the first time. It’s where my curious toddler took his inaugural dip in an ice-cold freshwater creek. And it’s where my little boy hopefully learned life lesson No. 1 — watch your step — when he saw his dad step in a yellow jacket’s nest. It’s where my family makes memories and it’s where we will opt outside over the holidays. 

But we have been fortunate to have the means to visit the park and others over the years. And for that, we are thankful. I’ve spent my career working to break down barriers in access to nature for kids and families. That’s why I’m saddened by the Trump administration’s recent moves to lock-up our public lands.

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As we enter the holiday season, we should be grateful for our country’s amazing natural places. But instead this administration is planning to hike fees in 17 of our most iconic national parks, charging $70 per vehicle, and pricing out America’s middle- and low-income families.

 

Today’s young people are growing up indoors, spending less time in nature than any generation in history. In fact, average Americans spends 95 percent of their life inside. Our indoor and sedentary lifestyles are contributing to obesity, chronic disease, stress, anxiety and depression.

The divide between children and nature is vast but efforts to bridge it reach across sectors and political parties. I’ve met thousands of kids with far too few opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Barriers like a lack of nearby parks and open spaces, transportation costs, school budget cuts for field trips, and a history of feeling unwelcome in some of our national parks all contribute to a disconnection from nature.

And let’s be honest: being indoors is less boring than it used to be. Youth spend more than 50 hours a week on electronic media. It’s no wonder we’re losing a connection to nature.

Over the past several years, a movement has grown to reverse the trend that has left an entire generation inside. It’s breaking down barriers to ensure all kids and communities can reap the benefits of time outdoors. 

The Sierra Club is contributing by training outdoor leaders who connect tens of thousands of youth and veterans with the outdoors each year. The Outdoors Alliance for Kids advocates for more opportunities for children, youth and families to get outdoors. And the National Park Service has historically recognized the importance of finding new ways to welcome and invite all kids and families into our shared public spaces. For example, leading up to the centennial year of the National Park Service, the Every Kid in a Park program was launched to reach low-income kids with new opportunities to visit our parks. Raising fees in our national parks severely reverses progress when it comes to equity and inclusion in the outdoors.

Additionally, the administration’s proposal claims the added revenue from the fee hike will reduce the maintenance backlog that is piling up in our parks. Yet, the Trump administration recommended a $322 million budget cut for the National Park Service. That’s more than four times what the fee hike would generate, while keeping parks accessible to all.

To add insult to injury, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal probe | Dem divisions deepen over approach to climate change | GM to add 400 workers to build electric cars Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal investigation Acting Interior chief moves to protect access to public lands MORE has begun dismissing criticisms of the proposal as “baloney.” Well, I would never go so far as to call anyone a turkey, but pardon me if I think this is a featherbrained idea.

National parks cannot be a testing ground for profit mines — isolating middle- and low-income kids and families from our public lands and making our park system a vacation spot just for wealthy Americans and tourists. Each and every one of us has a right to enjoy and explore our country’s public lands like national parks — a right that extends across socioeconomic and political lines.

This holiday season serves as a time to reflect on values in which we can all agree. As we get ready to engage in traditional family debates over Thanksgiving dinner, access to our national parks shouldn’t have to be on the table. 

Jackie Ostfeld is associate director for the Sierra Club’s outdoors campaign.