In summary

The passage of the PUBLIC Lands Act would increase recreational opportunities for California communities that don’t have a lot of access to parks.

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By Hilda L. Solis, Special to CalMatters

Hilda L. Solis, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is the Los Angeles County Supervisor for the First District,

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The safer at home orders have made the outdoors essential spaces for Californians to get fresh air, exercise and take a mental respite from the new normal under COVID-19.

At least, that’s the case for those of us lucky enough to have a green space near our home. Across Los Angeles County, there is a median of only 3 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents, which is half of the median for the nation. Over 30% of the county’s population lives in neighborhoods where there is only 1 acre of park space per 1,000 residents.  

The countywide figures only tell part of the story: there is less green space in many Black and Latino neighborhoods than in predominantly white neighborhoods. Lack of equitable access to park space is a problem in cities across California and the nation. 

Among the many inequities and racial injustices that have surfaced amid the pandemic, park access is one of most pervasive examples of how communities of color suffer from public health inequities. It is why community advocates and groups promoting park equity have thrown their support behind the PUBLIC Lands Act, the federal legislation that would protect 1 million acres of public lands and 500 miles of rivers across California. 

Championed by Sen. Kamala Harris, the PUBLIC Lands Act proposed protections of the Rim of the Valley area near the San Fernando Valley. This seminal piece of federal legislation has passed the House and will soon be heard in the Senate as part of the proposed National Defense Authorization Act. 

Its passage would increase recreational opportunities for California’s park-poor communities by protecting essential wilderness and catalyzing resources for community engagement. According to a recent Hispanic Access Foundation report, 55% of Latinos in California lack access to open space, compared to 36% of white residents. Increasing access to park space must be a public health priority. 

The neighborhoods that I represent in eastern Los Angeles County lie within the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, whose iconic ridges are the backdrop of the Los Angeles skyline. It’s a space with abundant hiking opportunities and diverse wildlife, offering a local getaway from the stresses of daily urban life. In fact, the San Gabriel Mountains provide Angelenos with 70% of their available open space.

Yet, it is not uncommon to meet lifelong residents of its foothill communities who have never once visited. While in Congress, I championed legislation that led President Barack Obama to designate 346,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains in 2014 as a National Monument to preserve the wilderness area for future generations.

There is still much work to be done. The proposed PUBLIC Lands Act would expand on that effort by protecting an additional 100,000 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains, including 45 miles of beloved rivers where local residents cool off on hot summer days. It would establish a National Recreation Area in San Gabriel Valley, which helps unlock additional resources to support park-poor communities.

Our treasured spaces need the support and advocacy of voters to ensure that local and federal leaders conserve natural spaces for generations to come and provide the resources needed to maintain their upkeep. As Latinos and other communities of color become essential swing voters, engagement with the outdoors is essential to creating the environmental stewards of today and tomorrow.

We recently celebrated Latino Conservation Week, an effort to engage Latinos in the outdoors. While this year’s campaign did not include its usual number of community gatherings and group hikes, there was still a push to engage in Latinos in policy advocacy. 

The call to action included a request to Harris, and other Senate leaders, to carry the protections in the PUBLIC Lands Act across the finish line. We promote public health when we collectively advocate for more green spaces for all. 

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