Protecting our public lands is a national health issue

For Latinos especially, lack of access to outdoors has damaging health consequences

People watch the stars and moonlight in Yosemite National Park in California in July. The health and well-being of all communities, including Latinos, relies on increasing access to the outdoors, Arce writes. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
People watch the stars and moonlight in Yosemite National Park in California in July. The health and well-being of all communities, including Latinos, relies on increasing access to the outdoors, Arce writes. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted October 26, 2020 at 5:00am

In recent months we’ve seen an outpouring of interest in visiting parks and rivers nationwide. As someone who loves spending time outdoors, I can relate to anyone who seeks comfort and relaxation in nature — especially right now. 

Studies suggest that access to the outdoors can reduce risks for diabetes, improve heart health and promote mental health. Many of us are coping with the pandemic by visiting neighborhood green spaces to relieve stress, breathe fresh air and hear birds singing. 

However, according to a recent report from the Hispanic Access Foundation, 67 percent of Latinos in the U.S. live in “nature deprived” areas, or areas with limited access to the outdoors. Further, Latinos are more likely to be diagnosed with obesity, asthma, diabetes and heart disease. In California, for example, where environmental hazards like pollution are one of the leading causes of asthma, Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the population. 

In order to improve health for Latino communities, we must recognize the ways in which our health outcomes are linked to a lack of access to the outdoors. This is especially apparent amidst the pandemic, when a neighborhood walk is one of the only ways we can safely get outside. By protecting our public lands and rivers, we can reduce health disparities for Latinos and improve access to parks for all.

As a Latina and the president and CEO of the Hispanic Access Foundation, I’m proud that each summer my group hosts Latino Conservation Week: a series of activities nationwide that support Latinos getting outdoors and helping to protect our natural resources. 

But more work is needed to ensure nature is accessible to all of us. Improving equitable access to the outdoors should be part of our country’s plan to recover from the pandemic. Fortunately, there are steps our elected officials can take to secure a better future for California and other Western states.

Some are already underway. California Reps. Salud Carbajal, Judy Chu, Jared Huffman and Adam Schiff have championed the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act. And California Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein are shepherding the PUBLIC Lands Act and the Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act. 

Collectively, these bills will protect and increase access to more than 1 million acres of public lands and well over 500 miles of rivers in California. Thanks to the efforts of congressional leaders from across the West, these safeguards, along with protections for public lands and rivers in Arizona, Colorado and Washington, passed the House as part of the National Defense Authorization Act earlier this summer. This is significant given that the NDAA is “must-pass” legislation for Congress.

I’m grateful to our champions for their dedication to protecting public lands and rivers, and I urge them to continue to advocate passage of these important bills this year.

I also appreciate recent wins for public lands in Congress, including passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. The law permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a national program that has helped protect and improve parks, trails and playfields in every state.

We must build on these recent accomplishments for our parks and public lands. 

All Latinos should be able to experience nature, regardless of where we live. The health and well-being of Latino communities, and indeed all communities, relies on increasing access to the outdoors. As we continue the hard work of determining what’s next for our nation, leaders must ensure more protections for public lands and rivers. Our health depends on it.

Maite Arce is the president and CEO of the Hispanic Access Foundation, which works to improve the lives of Hispanics nationwide and promote civic engagement.