By Erin Sandlin, Policy Intern

Growing up in Oregon and California, I was subject to the forces of nature (whether I liked it or not). As a child, I rode my bike through blackberry bushes that scraped my skin, I surfed waves that tumbled me like a load of laundry, I saw forest fires that engulfed trees without hesitation, and I witnessed amounts of rain that would put those fires out in no time. My mother took time to show me Mother Nature’s secrets by pointing out daffodils that bloomed on my birthday every year, and my dad told me which plants were okay to eat during a long hike. These experiences taught me from a very early age that the outdoors, grueling at times and gentle at others, were a place of unparalleled beauty and mystery.

At American forests, we are aware that not every child is surrounded by towering trees or close enough to the ocean to smell the sweet sea breeze. Today, more than 80 percent of American families live in urban areas, and access to safe outdoor places is in short supply. Electronic media is more present in the lives of young people than ever before, racking up, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, an average of 53 hours a week! Yet, there are thousands of parks, including National Parks, around the U.S. waiting to be explored.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Matthew Paulson
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Matthew Paulson.

Fortunately, as the National Park Service reaches its 100th anniversary in 2016, there are a number of initiatives that are honoring the parks and their service to the American people by increasing opportunities for kids and families to enjoy our National Parks. In recognition of National Park Week, American Forests is honored to support nation-wide initiatives such as the recently launched Find Your Park campaign and the President’s Every Kid in a Park Initiative.

Find Your Park — #FindYourPark for you social media mavens — hopes to encourage Americans to find their “park” and celebrate the work that is done to help protect our country’s special places and resources. The campaign brings attention to the thousands of parks in our communities and the hundreds of National Parks that allow for the exploration of our environment, history, and culture. As the National Park Service Centennial Ambassador Bill Nye says, “If you can find a National Park in New York City, you can find one anywhere!”

Additionally, President Obama has advocated to increase opportunities to visit parks and has launched the Every Kid in a Park initiative. The initiative is an inter-agency effort that will enable every fourth grade student across the country to experience their public lands and waters in person during the 2015-2016 school year at no cost!

American Forests continues to inspire people to value and protect urban and wildland forests through programs such as Community ReLeaf which works in cities across the country to improve their tree canopies and educate residents about the benefit of trees. We are pleased to see that the nation is taking notable steps to engage and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates that will help the National Park’s celebrate another 100 years!