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What’s Next for Georgia’s Trails, Parks and Public Lands?

George Dusenbury

George Dusenbury

George Dusenbury, state director for The Trust for Public Land in Georgia

Almost 83 percent of voters checked YES for the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Amendment (GOSA) in the November 2018 election, earmarking up to 80 percent of the existing sales tax collected on outdoor recreation products to create parks, maintain trials and protect land and water for wildlife. This overwhelming support is a clear signal that across our state and political party lines, Georgians care about public lands.

It took many years and the dedication of countless leaders, advocates and supporters to make GOSA a reality. We put aside the points that divide us, made compromises and aligned to achieve this game-changing outcome. Now, that resounding success has left conservation and recreation advocates with a question: what’s next? How do we leverage the partnerships, the awareness of the economic impact of the outdoor economy, the momentum toward increased access to public spaces, to take the next big leap for a healthier future for people and nature?

Many of the partners behind GOSA and some new friends came together in early May at the Georgia Trail Summit, hosted by The Trust for Public Land. We began a dialogue to challenge our community to build from the success of GOSA and establish a new kind of collaboration. Our discussion focused on how we now get more people outside to experience the beauty and benefits of the trails, parks and natural lands GOSA will help us create and maintain.

Growing up, there were hundreds of acres of woodlands beckoning in my backyard. My best summer days were spent turning over rocks looking for snakes and salamanders, building dams in the creek or forts from pine straw and fallen branches, creating new trails and biking through the woods. Because of those experiences, I am intentional in seeking outdoor experiences for myself and my family today. And I have to be. Because easy access to the outdoors has disappeared from much of America—just as those woods have disappeared from behind my childhood home. The average American spends only seven percent of their time outdoors.

We must create access and provide people, especially young people, a healthy dose of nature—because nature makes us healthy. Being outdoors reduces stress, blood pressure and cholesterol and makes you happier. Recreational experiences increase confidence, social skills and cognitive ability.

At the Georgia Trail Summit, we heard that trails and outdoor recreation are not just good for our health; they are also good for the bottom line. According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 report, American consumers spend $887 billion on outdoor recreation—more than they do on pharmaceuticals and fuel, combined. In Georgia, consumers spend $27.3 billion on outdoor recreation annually, and 238,000 jobs are directly tied to the industry. Compare that with the much-lauded film industry; according to statements made by the governor, film and television productions generated $9.5 billion in economic impact in fiscal 2017.

Equally inspiring, we heard from leaders in other states where outdoor product manufacturers, retailers and outfitters, and park and public land advocates are working together to address the needs and opportunities of public spaces. Coalitions have developed in many states to advance the collective ideas of those who are tied to outdoor recreation. We began to brainstorm what actions a similar group in Georgia could take. For example, one outcome of this kind of cross-sector collaboration has been the creation of a government office in at least 12 states—not including Georgia—dedicated to promoting the outdoor recreation economy. These offices serve many purposes, and perhaps most interesting to me personally is the emphasis that can be placed on improving access to parks with equity as the primary driving force.

The Trust for Public Land is excited to serve as a catalyst for the dialogue that began at the Trail Summit. In the coming weeks and months, we will convene a working group to discuss specific action steps and outcomes that are ambitious and right for our state’s needs.

Whether you attended the Georgia Trail Summit or not, I hope you will join this conversation by following The Trust for Public Land, the Georgia Trail Summit and your local environmental organizations on social media. Become a member of organizations that represent your community’s needs. And, share your ideas with your local officials. In the wake of GOSA, let’s seize this moment of near-consensus for our state’s lands and waters and build from that energy to imagine a healthy, connected vibrant future for every Georgian—outdoors!

The 2020 Georgia Trail Summit will be held in Augusta, Georgia on May 3-4. Sign up to receive email updates about the Summit and follow the Georgia Trail Summit on Facebook. This gathering would not be possible without the generous support of our sponsors, including presenting sponsor Cox Enterprises, and the many speakers, partners and volunteers who contributed their time and talent to make the Summit a success–thank you.

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