As Americans across the country socially distance themselves due to COVID-19, many look to the open air and public spaces for their mental and physical wellness. It’s a blessing of allowable freedom in a time when confinement is the rule.

Even before the virus cases began to soar, President Trump and Congress were ready to pass full funding for America’s best outdoor ally, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, to further open up public spaces for our enjoyment and health.  And now, that funding has taken on increased meaning, but not only for our mental and physical well-being.

LWCF, in improving outdoor access, supports an $887 billion outdoor recreation economy, and fully funding the program can and should be part of our next economic stimulus package forthcoming later this month.

Steve Ball

My generation and the generation before me have been lucky to have unfettered access to many of America’s finest public spaces for the past 60 years, in part due to the work of the LWCF.

Founded as a bi-partisan initiative in 1964, the LWCF operates on a simple premise — using royalties from oil and gas companies drilling offshore to reinvest into the lands and waters of our nation. In the decades since, LWCF has helped to preserve thousands of acres of public lands, including the mountain trails, rivers and forests of Maine.

In fact, LWCF has invested $191.6 million in projects in the Pine Tree State alone, building and maintaining everything from community ballfields to wildlife preserves. That investment helps support a booming outdoor recreation industry that in Maine generates $8.2 billion in consumer spending each year and supports 76,000 jobs across the state.

As the recent COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our economy, now more than ever is the time for the government to invest in these workers and the large outdoor industry they bolster.

I can speak very personally about the value of public lands. For nearly 28 years I served my country as a soldier, deploying with the special forces in all four corners of the world, experiencing chaos and conflict around the globe. During my time in service, my wife, sons and I would camp across the country as Army billets took us across the nation. I knew that life as an Army family could be tough, but the time we spent in our national forests and parks grounded us and helped keep us together. All of those years later, my boys still remember our outings as some of their fondest childhood memories.

When I retired from service in 2005, I knew transitioning to civilian life could be equally as challenging for me and my family, but I also knew that the wilderness and waters of home would help us all recover and reconnect to each other and our community.

For sure, I am not alone in this love for the great outdoors. Time and again I have heard of my fellow veterans retreating to a calm lake or quiet hiking path to heal and receiving the grace to do that.

Knowing how much of our public health comes from public lands, I was surprised to hear that funding for the LWCF wasn’t guaranteed — meaning those royalties intended for public lands were vulnerable to being siphoned off to fund other political pet projects. That realization drove me to fly to Washington, D.C., last month and tell my representatives how important fully and permanently funding the LWCF was — as a father, a veteran, and an American citizen.

I am proud to report that the Maine congressional delegation agrees with me. Providing the full $900 million annually for the LWCF is an urgent priority and a simple decision to make.

Each year, thousands of people set out to hike the Appalachian Trail, most starting in Georgia and relentlessly marching toward Mount Katahdin, Maine — the northern terminus of the famed trail. A few years back, I hiked this section to the summit, feeling the power and peace that comes only from the great outdoors.

We are now at the final mile of permanently protecting and fully funding the LWCF and Congress has every reason to summit and make that happen now in the next stimulus package.

As people are enjoying and/or healing in Maine and America’s LWCF-funded outdoors, they are also contributing to one of the most powerful economic engines for state and local community recovery — which is precisely what we need right now.

Colonel (Ret.) Steve Ball served more than 27 years in the U.S. Army. A former director for government relations for Maine Maritime Academy, he lives in Windsor.

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