Letters: Missoula needs neighborhood parks and green spaces more than ever

Missoulians have always sought comfort in the great outdoors. We are a community of weekend warriors – ridgetop runners, backcountry hunters, Jumbo paragliders and sup-board yogis. Our outdoor pursuits often define us, and they help to give shape and meaning to our lives.

And yet, even as the spring thaws the high country around us, many of us are choosing to stay close to the valley this year.

We’re skipping the big road trips in favor of local bike rides. We’re replacing our far-flung backpacking adventures with daily family walks in the neighborhood. We are choosing to make our world a little bit smaller, so that we can better understand and address the very big challenges we face from COVID-19.

And in the process, we’re packing into our local trails, parks and greenways in unprecedented numbers.

We’re spending time outside because it makes us feel good, and scientific research bears that out: a large body of evidence correlates time spent outdoors with improved physical and mental health. The benefits of that access are so clear that, even in this time of social distancing, the CDC is underscoring the importance of outdoor activity:

“Staying physically active is one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy. In many areas, people can visit parks, trails, and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active, and safely connect with others.”

Missoula’s open spaces and greenways are a lifeline for us, and they will continue to be in the days and months ahead. That’s something our public officials need to remember as they respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and lay the pathway for recovery.

For more than 50 years, a federal program has helped to protect our most precious natural lands while expanding access to parks and recreation in our own neighborhoods. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) provides financial support to local, state and federal agencies to protect natural areas and build and improve park facilities.

Funding for the program comes from offshore oil and gas royalties. Over its history, it has made more than 42,000 grants to states, supporting facilities from urban ballfields to playgrounds to hiking trails. Here in Missoula, the program has funded projects at Playfair, McCormick, and Fort Missoula parks as well as many of our local fishing access sites and our city bikeway system.

However, over the years, Congress has diverted more than half of the funding from LWCF to other budget items — limiting the program’s ability to expand access to open space and nature.

This year, a bipartisan coalition in Congress, with support from Senators Daines and Tester, was on the brink of fixing this — that is, before the pandemic hit.  Lawmakers were on the cusp of fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million a year, and providing several billion to address maintenance problems at national parks and other public lands.

With the benefits of local open space fresh in their minds, Congress should finish the job and boost funding for the LWCF.

Missoulians may be valuing our local greenways and parks more during the coronavirus crisis than they have in generations. But these neighborhood spots won’t stop being valuable once the pandemic is over. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to invest in our community’s open spaces and to fully, permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.