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We need action on environmental equity — not just words

We need action on environmental equity — not just words
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The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important access to the outdoors is for our health and well-being. This is especially true for lower-income communities of color that have borne the brunt of the pandemic and often lack access to good parks. 

The Biden administration has an opportunity to prioritize equitable access to parks and public lands to ensure that chronically underserved communities enjoy the benefits of America’s great natural heritage. The president, vice president and key Cabinet members are saying all the right things about equity and the environment. Here is what they can do to turn those words into actions and on-the-ground outcomes:

  • Biden pledged to protect “30 by 30” — 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 — which would serve traditional habitat conservation and new goals of increasing climate resilience and adaptation. But to advance equity, the goal should be “30 by 30 by 30” — directing 30 percent of conservation funding to creating equitable access to public lands and building a diverse constituency for conservation. The Donors of Color Network is leading a similar charge in the philanthropy sector, calling for 30 percent of climate funding to go toward efforts led by Black, Indigenous, Latino and other people of color.

  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a bill passed the same year as the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act, provides an immediate opportunity to advance this work. Thanks in part to a multi-year push by organizations, the Great American Outdoors Act was adopted with bipartisan support in 2020, providing permanent funding of $900 million a year for the LWCF. Biden’s Cabinet secretaries should mandate that their public lands agencies prioritize equitable access to both close-to-home public lands and remote wild lands. Operationalizing this would mean requiring that each agency prioritize the people served by LWCF projects, especially underserved communities. This should be done when ranking projects for funding and making priority lists. Additionally, agencies should be required to report annually on how their investments have advanced equitable access.
  • Congress determines the funding split between various components of the LWCF, and in December, it approved a critical increase in the portion for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) program, which funds parks in urban areas with the greatest need — from $25 million to $125 million for this year. Despite Congress, during its final days the Trump administration diverted critical LWCF funding away from local parks to a new program, effectively ending ORLP. The Biden administration should immediately undo this detrimental move and then take Congress’s lead even further: $125 million is just under 14 percent of the total funding now promised for LWCF. To put equitable access and representation on an equal footing, at least a third of the total — $300 million — should be dedicated to projects and acquisitions that advance equitable access goals through ORLP and other components of LWCF.

  • The Great American Outdoors Act authorized $9.5 billion for deferred maintenance projects on public lands. There should be a proactive process to revisit agency priority lists, factor in the necessity of improving access to public lands, and ensure transparency in the process. The National Park Service is slated to receive 70 percent of this funding. It should be required to review its deferred maintenance list and ensure that its investments meet the equity test.

  • Finally, and we know this will scare some in the environmental movement, the Biden administration and Congress should look beyond the Great American Outdoors Act and revisit the foundational acts governing our public lands — the Wilderness Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Forest Management Act and others — and revise preambles, definitions and other texts to reflect the importance of equitable access to our public lands, alongside other values. Changes should also reflect the traditional ecological knowledge of Native Americans  and support tribes to become co-managers of public lands within their traditional territories.

In 1964, the civil rights and conservation movements were like two great ships passing in the night. In the past year, we have seen how ignoring equity and racial justice for more than five decades has harmed the conservation movement, to the detriment of nature and ourselves.

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The Biden administration has an opportunity to revisit the great legislative achievements of the mid-1960s and this time make sure that our values are aligned.

Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA. Follow him on Twitter @the_wrangler.  

Yvette Lopez-Ledesma is the Urban to Wild director at The Wilderness Society, a national conservation organization. Follow her on Twitter @parksandbuses.