WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
PHOTOGRAPH BY Kiliii Yüyan
This year showed us how much we need parks and public lands. However, the decisions leaders make in years to come will determine how much is exploited versus how much is protected. The Frontline explores why the future looks green.
Don’t get it twisted: In 2020, public lands suffered blatant and violent attacks. Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump handed over national treasures to the private sector. However, with Trump’s exit, there’s renewed hope for what’s to come.
That’s not only because of President-elect Joe Biden and his promises. It’s also because world leaders (finally) recognize that if we’re to combat the climate crisis—which disproportionately harms communities of color—we’ll need to protect at least 30 percent of our biodiversity by 2030. If we’re talking about green spaces, you bet that includes coastal wetlands to protect cities from storms and urban tree cover to protect them from heat.
Welcome to The Frontline, where the future looks bright. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. In so many ways, this year has totally sucked, but the future feels so damn hopeful. World leaders must do a better job of protecting nature. In the U.S., at least, the new year brings us a step closer to making that possible.
In August, Trump did something rare: He signed the Great American Outdoors Act. It’s an imperfect law, but it helps permanently maintain the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which gives critical dollars to public land projects, including green spaces in low-income neighborhoods through its Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program.
In earlier years, the LWCF wasn’t always certain. Congress had the authority to redirect funds when it wanted (and it often did). Now, projects that vary from purchasing private properties close to national parks to adding bathrooms to an urban playground will have the money they need. The full funding of this program is one way the U.S. will see its beloved wild places grow, says Alex Taurel, the conservation program director with the League of Conservation Voters. More importantly, perhaps, will be how Biden implements his environmental agenda.
“Joe Biden is entering office with the most ambitious nature conservation agenda in history, the centerpiece of which is a pledge to protect 30 percent of America’s land and ocean by 2030,” Taurel says. “His agenda responds well to the demonstrated needs of people all across this country who are flocking to our parks and public lands.”
But this centerpiece Taurel mentions didn’t originate with Biden. It’s a plan environmentalists and scientists put forthyears ago. Protecting 30 percent of Earth’s land and oceans will help prevent further extinction of wildlife, keep out extractive industries, and create natural solutions to the climate crisis. After all, these lands aren’t only beneficial to our physical and mental health; they help suck carbon out of the air to ease the climate emergency, too.
More recently, this past weekend—which marked the fifth anniversary of the historic signing of the Paris Agreement—United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made clear what he wants to see from leaders everywhere: “I call on all leaders worldwide to declare a State of Climate Emergency in their countries until carbon neutrality is reached.”
Though it can seem scary, a formal climate emergency is the bare minimum. With it, we’ll need action, too—action to expand and protect our public lands. This year showed us the value a breath of fresh air holds. We need more spaces where people can rest and recover. The survival of parks, public lands, and all of us who depend on them rests on what comes next. For the first time in a while, I feel optimistic. And you should, too.