Latinos have an intimate connection with nature. Many who emigrated to the U.S. grew up in rural environments, poor in material goods but rich in nature's bounty. Because of this, experiencing and honoring the natural environment -- what Latinos call Madre Tierra, or Mother Earth -- has always been of central significance, a way to collectively express who we are as a people.
Latinos who did not farm wound up living in urban centers, surrounded by asphalt, steel and concrete. Where could families and children find respite from city life? Enter the nation's parks, preserves and national monuments. Whether local community parks or national parks like Yellowstone, parks offer Latinos a way to reconnect to something central to our culture and identity. These green spaces are ideal for family gatherings and for facilitating community connections, not unlike the plazas in towns across Latin America. In this way, the nation's parks brings Latinos together.
The benefits of our nation's parks are many. Parks employ thousands of individuals, creating a direct economic impact for our communities. They contribute to the beautification and air quality of our cities and towns. And they also provide health benefits. Throughout the United States, Latino children and families are struggling with difficult health issues, including obesity, asthma and diabetes. While there are numerous contributing factors, the lack of access to parks and green spaces throughout Latino neighborhoods is a major obstacle to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Hispanic Federation recently released a report that highlights the benefits of parks, and some of the many examples of successful parks projects.
One way Congress can help Latinos solve these issues is by providing permanent support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), set to expire September 2015, and to support the Antiquities Act, both powerful tools that can help Americans preserve their vital public lands. LWCF takes a portion of royalties from energy companies and reinvests them in the conservation of our public lands and natural resources. For over 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has protected more than 5 million acres of land and supported more than 41,000 state and local park projects. Along with LWCF, the Antiquities Act is another important tool in public land preservation that allows the President and Congress to designate national monuments. Passed by Congress in 1906, it has served as the President's main park-creation authority. Sixteen of nineteen Presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, have used the Antiquities Act to protect America's best known and loved landscapes, preserving for all time our shared cultural and natural heritage.
Sadly, there are those in Congress who oppose funding the LWCF and aim to refuse reauthorization. What's more, while the Land and Water Conservation Fund is authorized to receive up to $900 million per year, Congress nearly always diverts the funds for other uses, leading to inadequate funding for vital conservation projects. This is unacceptable, particularly when we know that parks and green spaces are critically important in the fight against obesity. In Latino communities across the country, monetary support from the LWCF provides spaces for children and their families to walk, hike, run and exercise safely near their homes.
Similarly, some in Congress wish to water down the Antiquities Act. They argue that state governments are better suited to preserving and expanding parklands. They also claim there is no public input in Presidential designations of public parks and monuments under the Antiquities Act, and thus want to take away the President's power. In reality, these convenient, false assumptions do nothing to improve access to parks and green spaces for Latino communities.
Congress has a chance to fix the LWCF once and for all. Congressmen Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) and Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania) have introduced H.R 1814, a bi-partisan bill to permanently reauthorize the Land Water Conservation Fund. The bill ensures that public lands remain truly accessible to the American people for outdoor recreation by setting aside at least 1.5 percent (a minimum of $10 million) of LWCF funds to increase access to existing federal public lands for hunting, fishing and other recreational purposes. Recently, an unprecedented 75 leading Latino organizations signed a letter to the House of Representatives expressing support for this bill and the LWCF.
Congress also must not hinder the President's authority to designate, given recent historical advances in designating Latino heritage sites. Important examples include designation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks as a National Monument in 2014, the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, established in 2012 to honor Chavez and his critically important work in securing fair wages and working conditions for farm workers and many others, and the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, established in 2013 to preserve a varied and stunning recreational landscape as well as significant prehistoric and historic resources.
The 114th Congress must act by September to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congressmen Grijalva and Fitzpatrick know that the LWCF works and is essential to the health and vitality of communities across America. Now is the time for colleagues in Congress to follow their lead and save this vital program.
José Calderón is President of the Hispanic Federation, the nation's premier Latino non-profit membership organization
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