IN TOUGH TIMES — like the COVID-19 pandemic — we often learn important lessons. One such lesson for me has been the close connection between my mental health and ability to connect with the outdoors. More than just an interesting “aha” moment, I believe that this realization calls me, American Forests and all of us to action.
You will note that I did not say a connection to “nature” or even “forests.” For me and, I believe, many others, our most frequent connection to the outdoors is a long way from the wildlands Aldo Leopold explored. It’s right outside our front door.
Just being able to walk under the leaves and hear birds on a tree-lined street, or have a shaded path for running and biking on a hot day, can make all the difference. In my own life, it has been incredibly valuable to be able to come out of my basement office and simply enjoy the trees in my backyard, as well as the small urban forest I am blessed to have at the end of my street.
But we also have a need, clearer now than ever, for big outdoor adventures. You have probably read about the record numbers of people visiting our national parks during the pandemic, in some cases pushing those places to their breaking point.
My wife and I love to visit Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest, both of which are less than two hours from our home. I used to wonder why we didn’t see more people in these places.
Not anymore. Now we have had to aim for “off hours” windows to visit our close-to-home parks because they are so heavily trafficked on the weekends it has not always felt possible to manage social distancing while on the trails. This difficulty has been seen across the nation, posing a huge challenge for public land managers and the people who go to these places.
One of the main reasons for this is that we have had fewer structured activities, like youth sports and concerts, competing for our time. But equally important is that the overwhelming intensity of sitting in just one place and having endless screen time day after day has prompted a raw physical need to balance our digital stimuli with the opposite — the sounds and experiences of being in nature.
To address this, American Forests is doubling down on its commitment to Tree Equity. Simply put, Tree Equity is about ensuring every neighborhood has enough trees so that every person can reap the benefits that trees have to offer — such as calming our minds on busy Zoom days. Soon we will roll out Tree Equity scores for every urbanized area in the United States. City government employees, community activists, urban foresters and others can use the scores to make the case for planting trees in the neighborhoods that need them most — notably, neighborhoods subjected to disinvestment and discrimination — and allocate the resources needed to do so.
We also need to create more “big nature” opportunities outside our communities, ideally reachable by large numbers of people in different ways, including public transit. American Forests has planted 65 million trees since 1990. We need to step this up in close-to-home places that can expand accessible outdoor experiences for all.
American Forests promotes Tree Equity and close-to-home natural areas as a focus for tree planting efforts through the 1t.org US Chapter, the trillion trees platform that includes entities ranging from governments and companies to Girl Scouts and faith groups.
Finally, we need to speak for time under the trees as life moves into a post-pandemic mode. Those happy faces I have seen on the bustling trails suggest to me that we have rediscovered something really important by taking away, temporarily, other things that have come to dominate our time. I hope we can help remind America of the healing power from mixing more outside time into our busy modern lives, and influence more people to do so.
Our forests have never needed us more, and we have never needed them more, too. Thank you for everything you help make possible at American Forests.
For more news and updates from Jad, follow him on Twitter @JadDaley.