In summary

Many of us have personal connections to California’s public lands and rivers; it’s imperative that we protect these places for the next generation.

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By Kim Orbe, Special to CalMatters

Kim Orbe is the Conservation Program manager for the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, Kim.orbe@sierraclub.org. She previously worked with Nature for All.

Growing up, my family and I had limited access to parks and green space nearby. I learned of California’s iconic National Parks like Joshua Tree later in life, but my mom, like other low-income, single parents, either wasn’t aware of these places or couldn’t afford to take me. 

The cost of gas, park entrance fees, and camping add up quickly. For many, cost and lack of transportation remain barriers to enjoying our National Parks.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I discovered the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. I was shocked by how close the national monument is to where I live in Los Angeles. In just an hour drive, you’re among the fir and pine-scented Angeles National Forest and the gorgeous San Gabriel Mountains. And, you can visit the national monument for free.

America’s public lands ensure we can enjoy the outdoors with friends and family. And the pandemic has only reinforced our collective need for affordable, open space close to home. That’s why I’m excited that the House of Representatives just passed the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act, which will safeguard more than 1 million acres of public lands and over 500 miles of rivers statewide. 

Reps. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara; Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park; Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; and Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, led this effort in the House. Now, it’s up to the Senate to carry protections for California public lands and rivers over the finish line – and I urge our leaders to take swift action.

Inequitable access to the outdoors is a pervasive issue throughout the state. People of color in California, particularly Black and Hispanic residents, and low-income people face more barriers to accessing nature than do white people. South Los Angeles, where I grew up, is 86% Hispanic and Black. L.A. County’s 2016 Parks Needs Assessment found that neighborhoods with “very high” park needs are largely concentrated in South L.A. Yet areas like Beverly Hills, which are predominantly white, have “low” or “very low” park needs.

I am thankful for the protections afforded by the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which provides Angelenos with 70% of our open space. Expanding the national monument ensures locals will have public lands and rivers to explore – even if their neighborhood doesn’t have a park. The bill would also protect public lands and rivers near communities that currently have limited access to nature in Northwest California and on the Central Coast.

Reducing barriers so that more people can access public lands and rivers is important for our well-being, especially these days. Getting outdoors improves physical and mental health and brings us fresh air, quiet and calm. By passing these protections, Congress will ensure that more of us can benefit from spending time in nature. 

Improving park access is a statewide issue. Many of us have personal connections to California’s public lands and rivers. It’s imperative that we protect these places for us and for the next generation. 

I appreciate Carbajal, Chu, Huffman and Schiff for their leadership to safeguard forests, trails, rivers and open space throughout the state. Last year, then-Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Dianne Feinstein led complementary efforts in the Senate. I hope Sen. Alex Padilla will follow in Vice President Harris’ footsteps by championing this effort together with Feinstein. 

California’s new senator has a strong track record on climate change and environmental justice issues, from calling for the closure of a local landfill as a teenager, to pushing for water and air quality improvements as a Los Angeles City Councilmember. Padilla can continue leading on climate and environmental justice priorities by working with Feinstein to move this important bill in the Senate.

The Senate should pass these protections at long last so that future generations don’t face barriers to getting outdoors. Let’s increase access to nature, so that more of us can explore our beautiful public lands and rivers.

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