The national park concept – of reserving unique and remarkable natural lands for all the people – was born in America. Our unparalleled national parks hold a special place in our history, culture, and life. Yet, amidst budget cuts, they struggle to meet the needs of visitors. This week, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) addressed the needs of parks and people through its Bridge-Builder Breakfast series with “Building a More Sustainable Future for America’s National Parks.” Looking ahead to the National Park Centennial in 2016, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and the National Park Hospitality Association (NPHA) convened political leaders and park advocates to identify new supplementary funding strategies for America’s national parks. The list of distinguished speakers included: Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, former Representatives Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Jim Oberstar (D-MN), and former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and former Governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman.
The co-chair of BPC’s Nutrition & Physical Activity Initiative (NPAI), former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, moderated a panel discussion. In his remarks, he pointed out that national park stewardship is a bipartisan issue, and that the parks are a key asset in promoting the nation’s physical, mental, and social health. “Our national parks are truly national treasures, and are supported by all Americans, regardless of party affiliation,” said Glickman. “Equally important, they provide endless outdoor recreational opportunities to help us all achieve the healthy lifestyles that are so necessary to our well-being.”
The national parks and other public lands tie into key aspects of our work here at NPAI—to increase physical activity and improve nutrition to prevent and manage costly chronic diseases. These outdoor recreation areas provide ample opportunities to engage in physical activity –whether walking or hiking along trails, cycling bike paths, or paddling lakes, rivers, or bays. Events such as the National Park Trust’s annual Kids to Parks Day encourage kids to get outside and play by exploring their local, state, and national parks. This year’s events, to be held on May 18, are endorsed by a broad stakeholder group including the Department of the Interior’s Youth in the Great Outdoors, American Academy of Pediatrics, National Education Association, Western Governors’ Association, Children’s National Medical Center, Boy Scouts of America, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, America’s State Parks, National Recreation and Park Association, Children & Nature Network, and the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. These partners are working to inspire children and families to visit national parks throughout the year – a perfect way of enjoying 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, as recommended by HHS’s physical activity guidelines.
The national parks have also worked to improve the other side of the energy balance equation—food and nutrition. In our June report Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens Our Economic Future, we highlight National Park Service (NPS) efforts to improve the health profile of foods served in the national parks. As part of the Healthy Parks Healthy People US initiative, National Parks Director Jon Jarvis launched a Healthy Foods Strategy to ensure visitors “access to healthy, sustainable, and high-quality food at reasonable prices.” The Park Service partnered with the nonprofit Institute at the Golden Gate to provide technical assistance in meeting its goals. In 2012, Jarvis committed to incorporating healthy food standards and sustainability guidelines into all NPS concession contracts. There is great potential to educate the 280 million annual visitors and influence the food choices they make, both in and outside of the parks. These guidelines provide an important model that we hope state and local parks, as well as other large institutional food providers, can follow to improve the healthy options available to the millions of visitors and other customers they serve each day.
Though our public lands are intended for the enjoyment of all Americans, they are not always equally accessible to all. We encourage governments, planners, community groups, and the private sector to think creatively about ways to overcome barriers to park use, which might include a lack of adequate information or public transportation. How can federal, state, and local governments work with the private and non-profit sector to expose more families to our parks? Park Prescriptions provides an example of a movement working to strengthen connections between the healthcare system and public lands. They aim to increase the prescription of outdoor physical activity to treat or prevent chronic conditions to provide resources that support health care providers and patients in achieving that goal. The California-based health insurer See Change Health, for instance, is removing financial barriers to access by committing to reimbursing its members for the cost of state park entrance fees.
We applaud efforts to expand the role of national, state, and local public lands in promoting health. And we encourage all Americans to avail themselves of recreational opportunities through public parks, trails, forests, or waterways. While national parks offer myriad benefits to the economy and the environment, they also hold tremendous value in our national effort to improve our physical, mental, and social health.