The sun sets over a hazy mountain ridge in Highland County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Elly Boehmer

Virginians love their open spaces. We love to hike, bike, swim and explore. From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the James River to the Eastern Shore, Virginia is home to so many special places to enjoy and recreate in the outdoors.

The current pandemic has reminded many of us of how much we need to be outside. That’s a lesson that the Virginia congressional delegation must remember on the pathway for recovery from the coronavirus. In fact, our collective “back to nature” response to the COVID-19 tells us not only that we love our parks, but also that we must expand access to the outdoors to all.

One reason we should do so is that parks and natural areas are a valuable asset in the effort to promote and improve public health. A large body of evidence correlates time spent outdoors with improved physical and mental well-being. Access to the outdoors has been especially treasured during a pandemic in which many of us have had to deal with health and economic stress. The benefits of that access are so clear that, even in this time of social distancing, the CDC is underscoring the importance of outdoor activity:

“Staying physically active is one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy. In many areas, people can visit parks, trails and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active, and safely connect with others.”

Yet, too many of us simply don’t have ready access to parks or natural lands. Nearly one-third of all Americans — 100 million people, including 28 million children — do not have a park within 10 minutes’ walk of their home.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, for more than 50 years, a federal program has helped to protect our most precious natural lands while expanding access to parks and recreation in our own neighborhoods. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) provides financial support to local, state and federal agencies to protect natural areas and build and improve park facilities.

Over its history, the program has made more than 42,000 grants to states, supporting facilities from urban ballfields to playgrounds to hiking trails. Here in Virginia the program has funded the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge, the James River National Wildlife Refuge and the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Historic District to name a few.

However, over the years, Congress has diverted more than half of the funding from LWCF to other budget items — limiting the program’s ability to expand access to open space and nature.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan coalition in Congress, with support from Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, was on the brink of fixing this — that is, before the pandemic hit. In March, the Great American Outdoors act was introduced in the Senate and enjoyed 59 cosponsors. This bill would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million a year, and provide several billion to address maintenance problems at national parks and other public lands — the latter being a major priority for Senator Warner.

After some time on the back burner, this bill is now being taken back up. On June 8, the Senate voted 80-17 to move forward with the Great American Outdoors Act. Surprisingly, reliable environmental champ and cosponsor, Senator Kaine, voted no, but despite this procedural vote, it is expected that both of Virginia’s senators will ultimately do their part to pass this important conservation measure.

America’s best conservation and recreation program deserves full and steady funding, and the Virginia delegation has a big role to play in making that happen.. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to invest in our open spaces and to fully, permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Elly Boehmer is state director of Environment Virginia, a statewide, citizen based environmental advocacy organization working for clean air, clean water and open space.