Spending time in natural spaces — from meadows in Oregon to rocky beaches to rain forests populated with more plants than people — demonstrably reduces my anxiety. Along with meditation and regular exercise, being in rural spaces keeps me off anxiety meds. It makes such a difference that even though I take a hit in my earnings, I've decided that I can't live in a city or a suburb again.
But don't take my word for it. Study after study has found that time in nature reduces anxiety and depression, improves physical health outcomes and has other mental health benefits like enhancing focus. According to Chinese researchers, a walk in the woods decreases inflammation, which is a cause of autoimmune diseases and cancer, and it reduces hypertension in older folks. When some research subjects were left in the city for seven days and another group spent the week in the forest: "... subjects exposed to the forest environment showed a significant reduction in blood pressure in comparison to that of the city group." Just 20 minutes outside improves concentration in kids with ADHD and there are a host of other positive benefits for kids with normal attention spans.
Combine the mental and physical health benefits for all ages, with the fact that we're losing species at an unprecedented rate, and it seems like a logical solution is getting more people outside, into local parks and reserves, and into some of our tragically under-visited state and national parks. It's an idea that wildlife and conservation groups in the United Kingdom have already suggested, calling for 1 percent of the national heath service there to be spent on getting people outdoors.
Could we do the same in the United States?
Let's do the calculations: 1 percent of the current $4 trillion U.S. health care spending budget would be $40 billion. The entire national parks budget for 2014 was only $2.6 billion, so that leaves plenty, even in just one year, to address the deplorable backlog of more than $11 billion in maintenance, that would get our national parks in tip-top shape.
That leaves about $25 billion, and some of that should definitely go to state parks and natural areas, the budgets of which seem to shrink and grow with the economy and legislators' moods. Let's say $5 billion goes to those organizations, and another $5 billion to wildlife organizations that are doing direct research on American species. (A great example is the Panthera Teton Cougar Project, which is doing critical research into pumas/mountain lions in Wyoming. What kind of progress could a group like that make with a $500,000 grant from the government?) There's still a tremendous amount unknown about how wild species interact, and yet we're making all kinds of decisions based on that limited information.
With the extra $25 billion, you could then get pretty creative: How about providing urban dwellers free transit to state parks on weekends (in biodiesel or electric buses), or bring every American schoolchild camping for a long weekend? (I've done environmental education for inner-city kids, and it's absolutely mind-blowing how much positive change happens when kids get to hike, canoe and play outdoor camp games just for three days.)
The best part about expenditures like this is that it wouldn't just cost money — it would make money too. Specifically for the often-rural communities near national parks — last year, for example, the state of Utah brought in $730 million in revenue from people visiting national parks there. Even being near a gateway to a national park can put a community ahead, as I found out when I visited Big Sky, Montana a couple months ago. (Big Sky is 40 miles from the west entrance to Yellowstone.)
And what about the plants and animals? With a flush budget, we could set aside more land to protect threatened species' habitat, which is the most pressing problem for most animals, insects and plants that are experiencing direct pressure from human expansion, and secondarily by pollution and global warming. Money could also be spent to remove invasive species (another threat to natives) and build structures like wildlife bridges and corridors to connect populations of otherwise separated-by-highways species like bears, big cats, wolves and coyotes, and smaller animals.
And all of these programs and ideas above would create something else, beyond better health for the greater numbers of people who could enjoy American's natural places: jobs, and lots of them. Especially for masses of educated young people who are under-employed, these would include jobs in education, tourism, animal/ecosystems research and science, conservation and construction.
As MNN's Jaymi Heimbuch writes, "... the National Park System should be considered a public health service! Creating and maintaining parks, open space preserves, state and national parks and even small green spaces within the urban landscape where nature is accessible are vital to a happy country."
And a healthy one. One percent is a small part of the health care budget that would have myriad health, wellness, happiness (and economic) benefits.