Pennsylvania Legacies #158: The Solution

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Interest in the outdoors skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, opening the doors for big investments in recreation, conservation, and climate. Most recently, billions in new funding for outdoor recreation and alternative transportation are now available with last month’s passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. We discuss with Charles Cooper, Managing Director with Signal Advocacy and a Co-Chair of Signal Outdoors.

It was clear from the beginning that the COVID-19 pandemic would transform the way people relate to public space. Not everything about that transformation has been positive, but some developments — like the ongoing mass-scale rediscovery of the American outdoors — are worth celebrating.

“Everybody’s starting to see the outdoors as a solution to a lot of challenges, right? It’s a safe place to be. There’s a huge climate solution in the outdoors. There’s a health and wellness solution, there’s a mental health solution. I think that’s what COVID did,” said Charles Cooper, Managing Director with Signal Advocacy and a Co-Chair of Signal Outdoors.

Even before COVID, politicians and policymakers were interested in the economic potential of trails and public lands. But the explosion in outdoor recreation that began during the pandemic cemented a new political reality: increasingly, leaders and decision makers understand that the need for natural infrastructure is real, and the opportunity is vast. Despite extreme partisan polarization on other issues, in the last few years Congress has  quietly passed some of the most significant conservation legislation in a generation, sometimes by large bipartisan margins. Most recently, billions in new funding for outdoor recreation and alternative transportation are on the table, with last month’s passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

One of the main reasons why legislators are starting to give outdoor recreation their attention, Cooper said, is that the outdoor industry is now viewed as an economic driver.

I think the outdoors is just becoming part of our society, part of our regular order of what we do, and also a solution to a lot of the challenges urban and rural alike that we’re facing.

“People are starting to understand this is really driving jobs. Trails are driving jobs. Companies are driving jobs. And because of that, we’re just seeing a huge uptick in interest in the legislative funding for this,” he said.

So what is in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill? According to Cooper, there is funding for natural climate solutions: using natural spaces like forests and wetlands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon dioxide, as well as improving the health and resilience of ecosystems. Trail infrastructure and connectivity projects will also receive significant funding, in part because the Infrastructure Bill was combined with a transportation bill. 

Local leaders are beginning to recognize that investments in outdoor infrastructure can attract people to their towns and cities. Communities are looking to invest in solutions that will address climate change, like greenways, reforestation, and protecting coastlines. Getting outdoors has become about much more than a pastime. 

“It’s not just about a casual ride anymore, it’s not just about a hobby. I think the outdoors is just becoming part of our society, part of our regular order of what we do, and also a solution to a lot of the challenges, urban and rural alike, that we’re facing,” said Cooper.