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Public Lands Are Teetering on a Precipice of Disaster

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White River National Park, the Maroon Bells in the early morning, Colorado; Photograph by Cindy Garwood, My Shot

Imagine heading out for an adventure in your favorite forest or park only to find it’s been shut down. Closed for business. Off-limits. Left to fall into neglect and disrepair. Sound bad? It would be. And it could happen—if Congress fails to get its financial house in order before the end of the year.

You’ve probably heard about the “fiscal cliff,” the looming end-of-year deadline for the U.S. government to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget over the next ten years. If Congress fails to outline a solution, then something called “sequestration” goes into effect Jan. 1. This means discretionary spending would be cut by eight percent across the board.

Let me tell you, there’s no rappelling off this this metaphoric ledge. It’s like a free fall when all of your protection rips out, and it means very bad things for our nation’s natural resources. It would result in dramatic cuts to discretionary programs in the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies that manage public lands and waters, hampering their ability to provide quality outdoor recreation experiences.

Consider for a moment if you needed to reduce your household budget by a hefty chunk of change. Would you just chop everything uniformly? Or would you carefully consider what is critical and not?

Congress has been hammering over this for weeks now—ever since the election. There’s a typical tug of war going on, with some pushing for tax increases and others making the case for huge cuts to discretionary spending. No matter what your ideology, everyone who thrives in the outdoors should agree that our already-underfunded public lands and waters simply cannot bear the brunt of more giant slashes to funding. Our programs frequently end up on the chopping block because people see recreation as what you do with leftover time and money. The time has come for policymakers to realize outdoor recreation is not an afterthought, but essential to vibrant, economically sound communities and healthy people.

Outdoor recreation is a significant economic driver in this country, contributing $646 billion in direct spending each year and supporting 6.1 million jobs, according the The Outdoor Recreation Economy report that Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) published earlier this year. This is almost twice as much as Americans spend on pharmaceuticals annually, and nearly three times as many jobs as the oil and gas industry. Plus we pump $80 billion into tax coffers each year.

Protecting quality places to play is about more than just fun—it’s about protecting the individuals, businesses, and communities whose livelihoods depends on the outdoor recreation economy.

Consider these facts:

  • 300 million people visit our national parks each year, supporting 258,000 jobs and $31 billion in economic activity.
  • 45 million people go to national wildlife refuges annually, generating $4.2 billion for local economies and creating nearly 35,000 jobs.
  • People spend $14.5 billion visiting national forests each year.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

The ramifications of drastic budget cuts to public lands are tremendous. Try to stomach these realities:

  • National wildlife refuges, national parks, national forests, trails, roads, campgrounds, and visitor centers will close.
  • Public lands will fall into disrepair because of an inability to maintain them.
  • Road maintenance will falter, causing increased runoff and diminised water quality.
  • Still reeling from the recession, local communities that depend on outdoor recreation will suffer devastating impacts to their economies.
  • You will have fewer places to go outside and enjoy the great outdoors.
  • Wildlife habitat will suffer.
  • Public agencies will have a limited ability to manage volunteers, whose labor is a critical for maintenance.
  • Fire mitigation and response will be reduced.
  • Invasive species will spread, reducing the quality of natural habitats.
  • Thousands of park rangers and resource managers could lose their jobs.
  • The national economy will suffer.

We can’t take our nation’s natural resources for granted. Investing in our public lands and waters is an investment in the future of our country. We must provide sufficient funding to protect plants and wildlife, quality outdoor recreation experiences, and the economic engine that outdoor enthusiasts drive. Not to mention the intrinsic values of open spaces that can never be quantified with an auditor’s pen.

The outdoor industry is taking action to prevent devastating cuts. OIA (the trade association that supports more than 4,000 outdoor businesses in the United States) teamed with Outdoor Alliance (a coalition of the six major outdoor recreation groups) to send a letter to President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada), and House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), urging them to prevent cuts to our public lands and find a balanced solution to the nation’s deficit problem by combining revenue measures with spending cuts.

You can help, too. Contact your representatives in Washington, D.C., and tell them that you support full funding for public lands and waters. Ask them to take a thoughtful approach to budgeting that protects our nation’s outstanding natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations of Americans. Your voice matters. Make it heard.

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich