Public Lands in the Time of COVID

I am supposed to be writing about conservation. But as my computer curser blinks I’m thinking about my girls in the other room watching a movie together at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, when they should be at school. I’m thinking about the lengthening list of work to-dos that keeps growing as I flounder from running work calls to helping our youngest with her math assignment to not-so-gently reminding our teenager that noon is not an acceptable time to be in bed. All the while terrified one of us is going to pick up COVID-19 germs from those unwashed tomatoes, and silently dreading my husband or I will lose our jobs.

Pre-coronavirus I always felt I was failing at working full-time and raising our three girls, always giving each a half-effort despite my best intentions. Somehow, our “new normal” has taken failure to a new level.

There are so many tentacles to this coronavirus pandemic that have no precedent. Things that don’t feel good. Things that keep us up at night.

And so, instead of writing about conservation as I should be right now, I’m writing to ask how you are doing. How are you? Are you sleeping? Are you eating? If you need help, do you have it? It’s okay to feel scared or angry. It’s okay if you are just surviving day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute. I am too.

What we are now taking on – together yet apart – is not tenable. Those of us who are lucky enough to still be working full-time jobs are now expected to be full-time teachers. Many of us have lost jobs. Many of us are sick. And I’m telling you – friend-to-friend, neighbor-to-neighbor, mama-to-mama: We will fail. It’s OK. We’re not alone.

Did I mention I’m supposed to be writing about conservation? That’s my job. But recently, it seemed tone deaf to talk about public lands, waters and climate change. Our nation is reeling from an adversary we can’t even see. We are scared and our world is changing: rapidly.

I’ve been dealing with fear and failure and frustration by doing what I’ve always done: go outside. I’ve been keeping it easy, running through our local trails, taking our girls for late afternoon – and widely spaced – cross country skis and sunny bike rides. Each time we head to our shared parks and trails I see friendly waves from strangers, and feel calm and community.

Montanans are lucky in that, during this unprecedented emergency, we still have safe and responsible access to the outdoors. It’s a different story in Chicago or New York City, where folks are confined to their homes, sidewalks and, if they’re lucky, a local park. Washington State has closed fishing season, because fishing access sites can be so crowded.

This pandemic reminds us that everyone has a right to enjoy the outdoors and we need to protect that right and plan for it. That’s what programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund were based on when it was passed in 1965, and it’s even truer today.

Once Congress can get back to business, it’s my hope that the Great American Outdoors Act can find its way to the president’s desk swiftly, so that LWCF – and the nation’s public lands and waters – can receive the full, dedicated funding America was promised over 50 years ago.

Public lands are connecting us – and providing us safe space – while we must remain apart. During times like these, our trails and open spaces provide solace and community I can’t find anywhere else. I suspect many Montanans feel the same.

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