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President Biden’s plan will combat some of the worst impacts of climate change in Colorado

By Sheridan Steele – June 30, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has reaffirmed for me just how lucky I am to live in Colorado. As households across the country spent months in lockdown, a trip to the great outdoors provided much needed physical, emotional and spiritual escape. And here in Colorado, we are fortunate to have so many national parks and green spaces available to us. I noticed a large increase in use of all public lands including the foot paths around my neighborhood.

Like many Americans, I avoided visiting national parks during the height of the pandemic in order to ensure the health and safety of employees, volunteers, and residents of gateway communities. And many parks have been fully or partially closed to visitors. But as more and more Americans receive their COVID-19 vaccinations, our national parks, like the rest of the country, are beginning to reopen and seeing more and more visitors earlier than ever.

We 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. Rocky Mountain National Park is already seeing heavier visitation this year and is implementing a timed entry system again to manage the crowds in reasonable fashion.

2021 promises to be a busy year for our national parks. 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 park shutdowns.

As we move into the summer season, 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 NPS for nearly 40 years, including time spent as the deputy superintendent at Rocky Mountain National Park for seven years. I have seen the impacts of climate change, particularly warming temperatures, firsthand. I’ve observed the spring snow melting several weeks earlier than usual, resulting in less water available in the summer for plants and animals. And the warmer winters, longer summers, and dry conditions caused by climate change are leading to more dramatic outbreaks of forest diseases such as mountain pine beetles, killing more trees than in the past. Incredible resources are at risk and the president’s plan promises to combat some of the worst impacts of our changing climate.

My time with the NPS has also given me a firsthand look at how much Coloradans, and Americans in general, value their national parks. I think one of the most important 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. So it’s heartening to see that on the heels of the America the Beautiful Plan, the NPS has 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 enjoy fresh air and the many benefits of nature and the great outdoors.

I also want to take a moment to thank Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, and Rep. Joe Neguse, for their support of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy, or CORE, Act. This Act will not only officially authorize the establishment of Curecanti National Recreation Area as a full-fledged member of the national park system, but it will also help to protect over 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado.

National parks drive tourism, make communities a more desirable place to live, benefit individual health, and create jobs. These parks, and the NPS programs that support them, are vital to the health of our nation. We must ensure that our national parks are not only protected and preserved for future generations, but accessible to all Americans today. Legislation like the CORE Act, and President Biden’s America the Beautiful plan, are important steps forward to achieving both goals.