Looking for a fun and healthy activity that celebrates nature? Why not hike?
Many North Carolinians have already heeded this advice. The number of visits to state parks in 2021 increased to 23 million from 20 million the year before. That’s an increase of 15 percent, and 2020 was already a record year. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park also saw record attendance, and most local parks and trails were busier than ever.
The pandemic sent people outdoors in droves, desperate for COVID-safe exercise and a break from all the stress and uncertainty. As we return to something remotely “normal,” we will still see high demand for parks, trails, and greenways because millions of people have rediscovered that being outside improves their physical and mental health.
Parks and trails provide places to connect with nature, where the values of conservation and stewardship can take root across ages, demographics and ideologies. That’s true in April when we celebrated Earth Day, and it’s true all year long.
People love their parks and need their parks. But not everyone in North Carolina has ready access to outdoor recreation.
I live in the Triangle and I’m lucky – apparently there’s a park or green space everywhere. But in many rural or underserved communities, there is a glaring lack of recreational opportunities for families to get outside and heal. It’s an environmental justice issue. Just as no community should bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harm to human health, no community should lack access to positive environmental assets such as parks, hiking trails and greenways.
Fortunately, significant new government funding is on the way to create more recreational opportunities. The state budget allocates approximately $200 million in additional funds to create, expand, and maintain both state and local parks and trails. In addition, approximately $100 million is available for land conservation projects that preserve open space. We hope that a significant portion of the new funding can help tackle unfair access to outdoor recreation.
These investments will bring about fundamental changes in park accessibility and are a clear sign that lawmakers from both parties and Gov. Roy Cooper recognize the tremendous value North Carolina residents place on numerous outdoor recreation opportunities.
In the meantime, families interested in healthy outdoor exercise can find plenty of travel destination information online. The NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ Parks and Trails for Health (PATH) initiative offers encouragement and information on nearby attractions and things to try, as well as suggestions to help you find something new or less crowded.
It is especially important for children to be outdoors in nature from a young age in order to develop a lifelong love and respect for nature. Our goal should be that every North Carolina resident lives within 10 minutes of a park, trail or greenway. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s necessary to improve public health and improve quality of life. Plus, it’s doable when we work with local communities to help them build their capacity to add these popular amenities.
And let’s not forget that expanding our park and trail infrastructure comes with clear economic benefits: better health outcomes; Expansion of outdoor gear manufacturers, outfitters and other tourism businesses; and creating communities where people want to live and work. The more outdoor recreation, the stronger the local economy.
So get outside for a walk, hike, or bike ride every day if you can, not just on Earth Day. You will improve your physical fitness and mental health and reconnect with the land we all depend on. And you will have fun!
D. Reid Wilson is Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.