Happy Haynes, executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation, knows firsthand the importance of increasing close-to-home outdoor access. She grew up in the city; her own story of connection to the land began at a neighborhood park she used as a shortcut while walking to school. The nearby Rocky Mountains, however, seemed a world away—just as they do for many Denverites who lack the transportation necessary to visit them, or live in communities without much green space of any kind.
LWCF has helped Denver shrink its park access gap, creating places like Montbello Open Space Park. Once a vacant lot tucked between an industrial area and a low-income community, today it’s a native prairie landscape that features an outdoor classroom, a climbing boulder, play equipment, and trails. Trust for Public Land drew funding from LWCF to create the park, in partnership with Environmental Learning for Kids, a nonprofit that connects youth with experiences in science and outdoor learning.
Haynes envisions a future in which young people start connecting with nature as soon as they walk outside, and grow into adult stewards of those same places. She’s advocated for full LWCF funding to realize that dream. “Having that long-term vision, continuity, connectivity, and predictability with the funding allows us to think big,” she says.
These diverse but unified voices rang clear. Congress voted in 2015 to extend LWCF for three years; when the fund expired again in 2018, the coalition kept the pressure on Congress, until legislators voted to permanently authorize it in February 2019.
Still, it would be another year before Congress addressed full funding. Senators introduced the Great American Outdoors Act on March 9, 2020; though temporarily sidelined by the pandemic, it passed the Senate on June 17 and the House a month later. The bill—and full funding for LWCF—was signed into law on August 4.
California Representative Nanette Diaz Barragán hopes that more of that money flows into cities. She cosponsored legislation which provides LWCF funding to create outdoor access in densely populated areas that need it most. “It’s my belief that regardless of where you live, regardless of your zip code, you should have access to open space, you should have access to clean air,” she says. “In so many communities of color and low-income communities, quality parks and green spaces are considered a privilege when they should be a right.”
Pastor Martin Martinez is a member of Por La Creación, a public lands advocacy program rooted in faith-based stewardship whose members spoke up for LWCF. Growing up in eastern Los Angeles County, he sought refuge from difficulties at home in nearby San Gabriel Canyon. As an adult, he returned with his congregation to worship, conduct baptisms in the San Gabriel River, and lift their voices in song, feeling the reverberations of the canyon walls as the mountains sang back.
Martinez knew the healing power of the mountains; he saw it not only in himself, but in the young people he mentored as a youth pastor, many of them gang members, whose resolves softened in nature’s embrace.
Like so many people I talked to who’ve given years of time, creativity, and energy to achieving the long-held goal of a permanent, fully funded LWCF, Martinez is savoring this victory and reveling in the power of his community showing up and making themselves heard.
“It was a tremendous blessing for us to say, ‘Wow, we spoke out,’” Martinez said. “‘We did something and it created the change.’”