Why National Parks Should Be A Part Of Our Public Health Strategy

Conservation policy and green living expert By Heather White
Conservation policy and green living expert
Heather is the former President & CEO of Yellowstone Forever and former Executive Director of EWG
Yellowstone National Park

Image by Westend61 / Getty Images

Every time I hike around the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, I experience a sense of otherworldliness. I witness the steaming pools and spectacular colors created by Mammoth's thermophilic bacteria. I reflect on the wonders of Yellowstone—from the roaming bison herds and wolf packs to the amazing geysers and boiling mud pots. This rush of images makes me feel connected with something larger than myself.

The United States government preserved the 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone in 1872, making it America's first national park set aside "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." During Yellowstone's nearly 150 years, we've learned a lot about national parks and wild places. We now know that the feeling that flows through me as I take in the sites of Yellowstone is called "biophilia," a term made famous by entomologist E.O. Wilson. It means humans are hard-wired to connect with nature.

Numerous scientific studies show that being outside is critical to our physical and mental health. According to Florence Williams, the author of The Nature Fix, time in nature decreases blood pressure, inhibits production of the stress hormone cortisol, and may protect against type 2 diabetes. Williams highlights peer-reviewed, scientific research to show that even five minutes in nature can lower blood pressure, relax muscles, and increase positive feelings of connection with others. 

Richard Louv, in his landmark book Last Child in the Woods, documented "nature deficit disorder," his term for our modern digital childhood where most American children do not spend time outside. The National Park Service has reported that "Americans spend an average of 93% of time indoors each day and only 21% of adults get the recommended 2½ hours of physical activity per week." Unfortunately, the once common parental phrase "go outside and play" is now a remnant of the past. 

This lost connection to the outdoors is a threat to public health.

The psychological benefits of time outside are well-documented. For example, a November 2019 University College London study discovered that children who spend time in nature feel more positive about themselves. The scientists surveyed 851 students, and four out of five of them felt more confident after engaging in outdoor activities. This is somewhat troubling research for inner-city residents—especially kids—who often don't have safe places to play outside. But green spaces and parks can make a difference in the city, too. As Aaron Ruben of Outside magazine reported in June 2019, research funded by the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control studied green spaces in Philadelphia. When the city allowed vacant lots to become greener and created "pocket parks," scientists found that residents felt better and saw significant decreases in depression and anxiety and overall positive increases in mood. In May 2019, Ruben also reported that the growing research on the mental health impacts of access to green spaces means that more and more doctors are actually prescribing time in nature to patients.  

Biophilia and the growing body of research of how we need nature demonstrate why protecting and preserving the national parks and other public lands is so important to our public health strategy. The National Park Service consists of 419 units across 85 million acres in all 50 states and safeguards important ecological, cultural, and historical sites. It recognizes that public lands and public health are inextricably linked.

And you don't have to live near Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon to experience the upside of the national parks, which Wallace Stegner called "America's greatest idea." If you aren't sure where the closest park is to you, check out the #findyourpark initiative by the National Park Foundation. If you want to take action to protect national parks and surrounding areas from oil and gas development pressures or lack of funding, please consider joining the National Parks and Conservation Association. In addition to these worthwhile nonprofit groups, most local parks have wonderful organizations that are supporting access, facilities, and environmental education in your community. Find out more about your local partners at the Public Land Alliance

Protecting these beautiful natural landscapes does not simply mean we'll have nice places to go on vacation one day. It'll help protect our health in the long run. 

Heather White
Heather White
Heather White is a conservation policy and green living expert. Heather’s former role as the leader...
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