Celebrating National Parks Week

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Photo credit: Margie Alt with her nephew at Acadia National Park

I grew up just outside New York City, and after graduating college, began my career as an advocate and organizer because I wanted to stand up to powerful interests that weren't responsive to average people.

Over the years I've done just that on a range of issues, but one I've become passionate about is especially relevant this National Parks Week: protecting America's breathtaking natural landscapes from any and all interests that might want to drill, mine, develop or otherwise destroy them.

I've been fortunate to visit and enjoy some of this country's most amazing places -- from Glacier National Park, to the Everglades, to the Boston Harbor Islands closer to home. Just last summer I hiked the peaks of Acadia, and got to bring along my 22-year old nephew -- also a product of the city -- for his first-ever camping trip.

So this week, I'm celebrating the country's more than 400 national parks, trails, recreation areas, and monuments, and I'm appreciating the efforts of the Obama administration to get a diverse array of Americans from all walks of life, including city-dwellers like me, out enjoying part of what makes our country so great.

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Photo credit: Shutterstock, Glacier National Park

After all, our parks aren't just needed respites from the hustle and bustle of urban living; they're good for us. Exposure to the sun helps raise our Vitamin D levels, which helps protect us from bone problems, heart disease, and diabetes, among other health impacts.

Parks are particularly important for kids. Today's children today enjoy just thirty minutes a day of playing outdoors, and spend nearly seven hours in front of a screen. Shifting this balance is critical for their health.

Our economy benefits from our parks, too. Every year local and regional public park agencies across the country generate over $100 billion for local economies and support hundreds of thousands of jobs.

As a nation, we've had the foresight to not just protect significant natural areas like the ancient redwoods of Muir Woods, but also set aside sites central to our country's history like the Statue of Liberty.

For his part, President Obama has used his authority to create monuments honoring the life and work of a cross-section of American heroes, including Harriet Tubman and the Buffalo Soldiers. And most recently, at a ceremony I was privileged to attend, he commemorated those who led the early fight for women's economic, political, and social justice with the creation of the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality Monument.

But for all their beauty; their economic value; and their power to restore us, educate us, and make us healthier -- far too many of our parks and monuments are threatened. Toxic uranium mines threaten the doorstep of the Grand Canyon. The oil and gas industry has tried to drill right outside the Everglades. Leaders in Congress and some state legislatures are even pushing to sell or transfer our parks to the highest bidder, and prevent new monuments from being created.

The National Park Service manages parks, trails, and recreation areas across the country from Washington's Mt. Rainier to Dry Tortugas at the very southern tip of Florida. Yet since 2005, Congress has cut the Park Service's budget by half a billion dollars - leading to long term staff losses, closed facilities, and the growth of the $11.3 billion backlog for deferred regular maintenance.

Year after year, Congress has also raided funds from the country's most important program for adding and expanding parks, the Land and Water Conservation Fund - and even allowed it to expire briefly last year.

This National Parks Week, my decades of advocating and organizing in the public interest are coming in handy. Please join me in calling on Congress to preserve and protect our diverse lands and vibrant history, and to provide needed funds to repair and maintain our parks, trails, recreation areas, and monuments. Help us stave off attacks on our existing parks and stand up to those who want to limit the creation of new parks and monuments. And above all, find your park and go enjoy it. I hope to see you on the trail!