Pa.’s outdoor spaces at risk due to Congressional neglect. Here’s what needs to change | Opinion

Originally published by The Philadelphia Inquirer on October 22, 2018

Gabby Perez, For the Inquirer

Living in Pennsylvania this past year, I fell in love with the natural beauty of the state. I was surrounded by a diverse landscape — everything from sea-level marine estuaries and tidal marsh, to the Appalachian Mountains and Allegheny Plateau. For many Pennsylvanians, weekends often mean hiking the Appalachian Trail or kayaking down the Delaware Water Gap in the northeast corner of the state. For more than 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has been a crucial line of defense for these outdoor treasures, along with national parks, forests, monuments, wildlife refuges, and local park projects across the state.

This vital conservation and recreation program, which has saved outdoor places in every state and nearly every county in the U.S., expired at the end of September due to congressional neglect. With the future of America’s outdoor heritage at stake, it is vital that we continue cheering on Pa. Democratic Reps. Robert Brady and Dwight Evans, and Republican Mike Kelly, cosponsors of legislation that would permanently reauthorize the LWCF. It is also crucial that these Pennsylvania lawmakers demonstrate true bipartisan leadership and urge their colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get on board with efforts to protect the iconic landscapes and waterways we all love before it’s too late.

Simply put, the great outdoors is a way of life and vital to the economy of Pennsylvania. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, this major economic driver employs more than 250,000 Pennsylvanians every year, more than three times the number employed by the state’s natural gas industry.

Overall, outdoor recreation contributes a staggering $29.1 billion annually to our state’s economy and generates $1.9 billion in state and local tax revenue, which funds our public schools and the vital social programs that our communities depend on. Outdoor recreation is the bedrock of communities across Pennsylvania, and the longer Congress allows to the LWCF to remain expired, the more harm it causes to our public outdoor spaces and local economies.

Before expiration, the LWCF provided another significant benefit for our community: it protected outdoor recreation opportunities for urban dwellers that may have otherwise been lacking. Too often urban residents, particularly people of color, experience a disconnect with the great outdoors. Communities of color, especially those concentrated in large urban areas, such as Philadelphia, have fewer outdoor spaces in their neighborhoods and may not have the means to travel long distances to enjoy recreational activities. Earlier this year, the Hispanic Access Foundation released a report highlighting the important role the LWCF has played in protecting outdoor access for Latino, urban, rural, and low-income communities across the country.

One of the sites featured in the report is the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, where I had the opportunity to intern last summer. It was my desire to improve the bond between Latino communities and our public lands that led me to apply for the internship. Located a stone’s throw away from Philadelphia International Airport, the refuge protects the largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in the state.

Throughout the course of my work at the refuge, I was able to get hands-on conservation experience while working to protect a natural treasure that provides irreplaceable and easily accessible outdoor opportunities to Philadelphians of all backgrounds. At a time when our outdoor spaces, particularly those in and around urban areas, are increasingly threatened by development, Congress should be exploring ways to promote access to the outdoors — not threatening it.

In the coming months, communities across America are counting on our leaders to make good on their commitment to the LWCF and protect access to our iconic landscapes and waterways for generations to come. Failure to do so will have terrible consequences for the thousands of hard-working Pennsylvanians who depend on the outdoor recreation industry for their livelihood and will disproportionately impact urban communities.

It is time for Congress to set aside politics and stand up for the vast majority of Pennsylvanians who agree that the LWCF is essential to protecting our local economies and access to the great outdoors that we all deserve.

Gabby Perez is a former intern at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Pa.