“For us to do better, we have to know better. For us to know better, we have to get out in our community, and for us to know better we have to get outside.”
These true and inspiring words were spoken by Sister Stephanie Hughes, a longtime advocate for access to parks and the outdoors for everyone, and particularly people who are experiencing mental and physical health challenges due to poverty and racism.
As she spoke, a group of advocates, youth, and park professionals were sitting in a redwood grove in Samuel P. Taylor State Park on June 17, talking about all the ways we can help get Californians – especially those who are struggling – into the healing environments offered by our 280 state parks.
Hosted by California State Parks, California State Parks Foundation was joined by many other organizations that are championing your California and parks, Save the Redwoods League, Parks California, Golden Gate Parks Conservancy, Outdoor Afro, Marin County Libraries, and Environmental Traveling Companions. We were there to share stories and ideas with California’s First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the chair of California State Parks Foundation’s Pathways to Parks campaign to break down barriers and build stronger accessibility to parks. The First Partner is a longtime advocate in her own right for the healing power of nature and ensuring California youth can experience, learn, grow, and connect with the outdoors, regardless of their zip code or background.
The beginning of the day at Tomales Bay State Park was a reminder of why the Pathways to Parks campaign is so important. We started the day hiking a half-mile from Heart’s Desire beach to Indian Beach, where we joined youth kayakers from Environmental Traveling Companions, a Marin-based program that supports youth and people with disabilities to experience wilderness and outdoor activities. The group spoke to the First Partner, after their very first time kayaking. The First Partner commented to the group that “nature is the one place you can be present” and get away from screens and any chaos. The group talked about their kayaking experience, what it meant to them, and how they wanted to come back to the park in the future. This kayaking adventure was the first in a series of outdoors activities inspiring self-confidence, connection to nature, and stewardship of the environment. Diane Poslosky from Environmental Traveling Companions summed up the conversation, “you can’t protect what you don’t love, you can’t protect what you don’t know,” speaking to creating the next generation of park stewards.
We also heard from Marin County librarians about an innovative program that makes park passes available to library card holders. The librarians let the group know that the park pass was the highest circulated item in Marin County Libraries, more than some of the most popular books. Those who check out the pass get a kit with information and items to help enjoy and experience state parks. There is so much we can take and learn from with the successes of this program at a statewide level.
The First Partner has championed ideas to get more youth outdoors, and we were absolutely thrilled that Governor Newsom has proposed funding several of these ideas in the 2021-22 state budget, including $108 million to support AB 209’s Outdoor Equity Grants Program and expand existing programs linking state parks with K-12 public schools, as well as $9 million to launch a pilot program to expand park pass distribution, especially for youth in disadvantaged communities. This would include a “California State Park Adventure” program for fourth graders and new statewide partnerships with the California State Library and Department of Social Services.
The budget was passed—as required by law—on June 15, but because the Legislature was unable to reach an agreement on how to spend the state’s $76 billion surplus, there are several decisions that will be made in subsequent “trailer bills” in the coming months. Specifics about funding for parks will be part of those decisions yet to come. Please sign our action alert on budget investments for parks to let your representatives know that you support the Governor’s proposals.
There is so much we know about the healing benefits of nature, and the proximity of some of California’s underserved youth to state parks. Still, it was inspiring to hear from different groups throughout the day on all of the healing impact that is possible when we make nature accessible. Tanisha Gupta, California State Parks Foundation volunteer youth Core Leader came with her sister and mother to share her experience as a volunteer and how using the national park pass when she was in the 4th grade inspired her to continue to visit parks with her family.
A little over a year ago, the First Partner joined California State Parks Foundation staff and board, as well as a group of advocates and grantees, on a similar tour in Los Angeles to tour programs and state parks that have a track record of increasing youth access to parks. At the time, we had no idea that a deadly pandemic would upend all our lives for the next 15 months and counting.
However, the experience has strengthened our understanding of why parks are important to our quality of life and our health. Ms. Siebel Newsom said it best when talking to youth, with peaceful Tomales Bay in the background. “I really want to heal California and I think parks are the best way to do it,” she said.