I grew up in Hazelwood, never imagining that our national parks would be relevant to my life, much less central to my ambitions and to my hopes for my city. But as the federal sequester undercuts funding for those parks, it's time to focus on what they mean even for urban America.
I had the great fortune, while a student at City Charter High School, to be offered a volunteer opportunity with the Student Conservation Association cleaning up Schenley Park. Picking up trash may not sound like an extraordinary career move, but the following summer SCA offered me a volunteer opportunity in Allegheny National Forest, and the year after that I was working on the Appalachian Trail.
By the time I finished high school, I was building trails in Haleakala National Park on Maui. Today, as a college student majoring in geography and urban planning, I'm on SCA's national alumni council, providing policy advice to the only national organization that develops tomorrow's conservation leaders by providing high school and college students with service opportunities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
While Haleakala National Park is truly spectacular, you don't have to travel far from Pittsburgh to enjoy the benefits of our national parks. From Friendship Hill to Independence Park, there are 18 of them in Pennsylvania, providing $325 million in economic benefits from tourism each year. There are 120 state parks and conservation areas in Pennsylvania as well, and many more local parks and other open spaces.
Our national, state and city parks are a crucial part of our heritage. National parks reflect the majesty of our land; state parks highlight what we as Pennsylvanians cherish most in our landscape; city parks offer a counter-balance to urban life.
Despite their dramatic differences -- Haleakala National Park and Schenley Park could hardly be less alike -- all parks share a common trait: They provide refreshment and encouragement through nature. They provide a compelling sense of place and purpose. They allow us to remove ourselves from daily stresses. They inspire bigger dreams and put the mundane in perspective. They stand as a testament to how we care for the environment, our own humanity and the Earth itself.
My experience in Maui did not make me less interested in Pittsburgh; it made me more interested in bringing some of Maui here. It made me wonder why we don't value our parks more, why we don't fund them better, why we too often treat them as add-ons rather than essential elements of our daily lives.
When the federal sequester reduces funding for our national parks, it undercuts our heritage. It holds that heritage hostage to power plays on Capitol Hill.
In response, Americans should renew our commitment to parks: in our neighborhoods, across the state and throughout the nation. We can do that in a variety of ways.
We can visit parks; just showing up demonstrates commitment, letting elected officials know that our parks are priorities. We can volunteer our time, fixing up our parks and ensuring that they are well-maintained for others to enjoy. We can donate to organizations that support our parks.
It doesn't require a major commitment from each of us. It just requires that we make it known that we care about our parks, that we depend on them for relief, that we value what they add to our lives. Picking up trash in Pittsburgh might just take you to Maui, too.
Jay Carter is a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.