By Rebecca Harriett
Jun 13, 2021
West Virginia is a state that values access to the great outdoors. It’s a place of incredible beauty, full of opportunities to hike, canoe, hunt, fish and swim. And for West Virginians — and Americans across the country — the COVID-19 pandemic has very visibly demonstrated just how important our outdoor spaces are to our physical and emotional health.
As the summer season gets underway, many of our national parks are beginning to reopen following a period of full or partial closure due to the pandemic. I have seen numerous articles in the media that offer tips for visiting national parks this summer, or stories that raise the alarm about how fast entry tickets are selling out in some parks.
West Virginia is home to our country’s newest national park, New River Gorge, and summer is sure to attract throngs of visitors intent on escaping their homes following months of quarantine or stay at home orders. 2021 promises to be a busy year for all of our national parks and I expect the National Park Service will welcome more than the 327 million visitors who traveled to national parks in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 park shutdowns.
As we roll into summer, President Joe Biden’s ambitious America the Beautiful Plan — which sets a goal to not only protect 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 but to increase access to outdoor recreation opportunities for all Americans — could not have come at a better time.
I served the National Park Service for nearly 40 years and spent seven years in West Virginia as the superintendent of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. I have seen the impacts of climate change at parks across the country, and in West Virginia; more frequent droughts, higher temperatures and dangerous floods. Resources and people are at risk and the president’s plan promises to combat some of the worst impacts of our changing climate.
It’s clear that Americans value their access to the outdoors, from national parks to local community green spaces. One of the most apparent lessons learned from the pandemic is the value of close-to-home parks, trails and open space not just for exercise but for the health of our communities. In addition to working towards the goals of the America the Beautiful plan, the Park Service has also committed to the distribution of $150 million in funding to local communities through the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program. This program will help communities with the greatest needs to create new urban parks closer to home and breathe life into existing outdoor spaces so more people can get outdoors.
Our national parks and the Park Service programs that support them are vital to the health of our country. National parks drive tourism, make communities a more desirable place to live, boost physical activity, and create jobs. They provide us with open space to roam and reflect. President Biden’s America the Beautiful plan is an important step towards ensuring that our national parks are not only protected and preserved for future generations, but accessible to all Americans today.
Rebecca Harriett retired as superintendent of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Booker T. Washington National Monument after 38 years of service with the National Park Service. She is a member of the Executive Council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.