Opinion

It’s clearer than ever that Maine needs local parks and green spaces

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Mainers have always sought comfort in the great outdoors. We are a community of weekend warriors — coastal explorers, peak baggers, backcountry hunters, and island-hopping sea kayakers. Our outdoor pursuits often define us, and they help to give shape and meaning to our lives.

 

And yet, even as the spring thaws the snowy peaks around us, many of us are choosing to stay close to home this year.

 

We’re skipping the big road trips in favor of local bike rides. We’re replacing our far-flung backpacking adventures with daily family walks in the neighborhood. We are choosing to make our world a little bit smaller, so that we can better understand and address the very big challenges we face from COVID-19.

 

And in the process, we’re packing into our local trails, parks, and greenways in unprecedented numbers.

 

We’re spending time outside because it makes us feel good, and scientific research bears that out: A large body of evidence correlates time spent outdoors with improved physical and mental health. The benefits of that access are so clear that, even in this time of social distancing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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,” the CDC says on its webpage.

 

Maine’s green spaces and waterways are a lifeline for us, and they will continue to be in the days and months ahead. That’s something our public officials need to remember as they respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and lay the pathway for recovery.

 

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.

 

Funding for the program comes from offshore oil and gas royalties. Over its history, it has made more than 42,000 grants to states, supporting facilities from urban ballfields to playgrounds to hiking trails. Maine has received $191 million from the program, funding projects ranging from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge to Lily Bay State Park to the Allagash Wilderness to the Bangor Waterfront.

 

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.

 

This year, a bipartisan coalition in Congress was on the brink of fixing this; that is, before the pandemic hit. Lawmakers were on the cusp of fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million a year, and providing several billion to address maintenance problems at national parks and other public lands. 

 

Rep. Jared Golden demonstrated his support for the initiative from early on when he signed on as a cosponsor of the LWCF Permanent Funding Act last June. Maine’s 2nd Congressional District has benefited greatly from the LWCF over the years, and we’re hopeful that as this comes together, Golden will use his influence to ensure a final package that combines both items.

 

With the advantages of local open space fresh in their minds, Congress should finish the job and boost funding for the LWCF.

 

Mainers may be valuing our local greenways and parks more during the coronavirus crisis than they have in generations. But these neighborhood spots won’t stop being valuable once the pandemic is over. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to invest in our community’s open spaces and to fully, permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

 

Anya Fetcher is the state director of Environment Maine.

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