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Should we care about conservation during a pandemic?

Should we care about conservation during a pandemic?
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Now, more than ever, we need nature and the benefits it provides. COVID-19 has both revealed and exacerbated deep inequities in access to green space. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be at home, away from the frontlines, appreciate the mental and physical health boost provided by walks and nature views even more. 

Those in less privileged communities find themselves in a double whammy of air pollution making the disease more severe, while lacking the green space that is so necessary to resilience, health and wellbeing.

A lot of things have changed with the pandemic and many of us are gleaning a sliver of hope from the news of cleaner airlower carbon emissions and the resilience and rebound of nature and wildlife in the face of human retreat to our homes. But one thing hasn’t changed: Even with vehicle and industrial emissions falling, the climate crisis remains as huge of a threat as ever. 

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According to NOAA, 2020 is still on track to being the warmest year on record. We can expect natural disasters, droughts, diseases and other hazards to worsen in the coming years and to disproportionately harm Latinos and other communities of color.

We can ease the impacts of the current and future disasters, mitigate the climate crisis and bring so many more benefits by protecting, restoring and creating green spaces that are accessible to all. Urban trees, for example, lower the rate of asthma in children, keep temperatures comfortable from the heat in summer and wind in winterabsorb air pollution and carbon emissionsreduce energy costslower flood riskimprove water and soil qualitylower stress and noise, and bring a sense of community and vitality to neighborhoods. Having a view of trees can even send you home from the hospital faster and healthier.

At a time when we are worried not only for our health, but our jobs as well, it is worth noting that habitat restoration projects generate a high number of jobs for the money spent. One study found that for every million spent by NOAA on coastal habitat restoration, 17 jobs were created — more than double the rate of job creation from coal, gas and nuclear energy. Also, having a wetland nearby can boost the economy, reduce losses from flood damage and bring the same benefits as urban trees.

It is clear that green spaces, encompassing our glorious national parks all the way through to the neighborhood parks where our children play, can act as a cost-effective fast track to reducing the burdens of inequity that poorer communities and communities of color face. What’s more, they can keep us healthier in the face of COVID-19.  

One way to quickly jumpstart the economy, bolster our health and protect and maintain access to the outdoors is with the Great American Outdoors Act, a bipartisan Senate bill that would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and address the maintenance backlog in our public lands. Seventy percent of all voters and 69 percent of Latino voters in Western states support fully funding LWCF. If passed as part of an economic stimulus package, this measure would create jobs, provide relief to governments struggling to maintain essential services, alleviate crowding in public lands as quarantine measures are lifted and connect children, families and everyone else to the benefits of nature. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court Trump blasts Obama speech for Biden as 'fake' after Obama hits Trump's tax payments White House hoping for COVID-19 relief deal 'within weeks': spokeswoman MORE (R-Ky.) announced that the Senate will take up the bill in June. 

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Another way to protect and expand our green spaces is with the movement to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. This “30x30” initiative could take its first step with state-level bills and programs, like the ones that have been introduced in CaliforniaSouth Carolina and Hawaii, to conserve 30 percent of the state’s lands and waters by 2030. Seventy-three percent of Western voters support the national initiative, as do 82 percent of Latinos.

COVID-19 will not be the last disaster we face as a society. But we can lessen its effects, and those of future disasters, with holistic conservation policies that include pollution reduction and land and water protection and restoration, with equity and access for all.

Shanna Edberg serves as the director of conservation programs for the national nonprofit Hispanic Access Foundation. Follow her on Twitter: @shannaedberg.