Shenandoah National Park has been inundated with out-of-town and out-of-state visitors since COVID-19-related restrictions were first put in place. (National Parks Service)

By Ray Palmer

America is in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. By now, we all know the new rules: Wash your hands, wear masks and keep a safe distance from others.

Thank heavens from the start we’ve been given the go ahead to spend time outdoors. Even before the virus cases began to soar, Congress and President Donald Trump were ready to pass full funding for America’s best outdoor ally, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), to further open up public spaces for our enjoyment and health. Now that funding has taken on increased meaning. LWCF, in improving outdoor access, supports a vast $887 billion nationwide outdoor recreation economy, and supporting that economy can be a powerful stimulus for recovery.

Since its founding in 1964, the LWCF has dedicated billions of dollars to saving scenic drives, national parks and local waterways across all 50 states. In Virginia alone, it has invested $360.8 million in everything from battlefields to baseball diamonds. This investment contributes greatly to Virginia’s lucrative outdoor recreation economy which generates an estimated $21.9 billion in consumer spending, and supports 197,000 jobs and $6.5 billion in wages and salaries to Virginia workers.

My appreciation for the great American outdoors started decades ago as a four year-old. Among the grand granite cliffs and sequoias of Yosemite, I fell in love with wilderness. During my time in the service, public lands served as places of refuge for me. I’d take leave and dash away to whatever national or state park was nearest to where my family lived in Wyoming.  From that location, I was fortunate to see some of the quintessential national parks like Yellowstone,  the Grand Tetons, as well as the extensive national forests in Montana.

These places gave me the time and freedom to connect with the country I was defending.

When I returned from Vietnam I was drawn again to our national parks and other remote public lands to find peace and solace.

Wherever we moved, we always preferred to be within easy reach of these sacred lands. The proximity to Shenandoah National Park was a key factor in our choosing to settle in Virginia in 2014, in addition to LWCF-supported lands like the Appalachian Scenic Trail, Rappahannock River Valley and numerous Civil War sites throughout our great commonwealth.

Now more than ever we need to enact legislation to fully fund the LWCF at its originally intended amount of $900 million annually. We are on our way since the Great American Outdoors Act, which includes both full funding for LWCF and addresses the National Park System’s long-delayed $12 billion maintenance backlog, passed the Senate last month.

Travel industry experts predict that as COVID-19 restrictions begin to loosen and travel and tourism open up, what will happen is first that people will take day trips or road trips in nature and visit our scenic national parks, places where you can ensure distance from fellow travelers.  It really makes the case for enacting GAOA quickly, to improve access to deal with pent-up demand and make overdue repairs to infrastructure such as trails and roads.

Many of our members of Congress realize that LWCF grants for public lands protection and access to outdoor recreation are a proven and potent economic stimulus. I urge the House to follow through and pass GAOA and send it to the president’s desk for signing.

According to a Trust for Public Land analysis, every dollar invested in LWCF returns at least $4 in economic benefits, which means that each year we invest the full $900 million in our parks and public lands, we reap $3.6 billion in economic activity.  It is a wonderful compensation that as people are enjoying and/or healing in Virginia and America’s LWCF funded outdoors, they are also contributing to one of the most powerful economic engines for state and local community recovery – which is precisely what we need right now.

Ray Palmer served in 101st Airborne Div., U.S. Army, from 1965-1968 with the last two years in Vietnam. He resides in Orange with his family.