Looking for a fun and healthy activity that celebrates nature? Why not take a hike?

Many North Carolina residents have already heeded this advice. State park attendance in 2021 rose to 23 million from 20 million the year before. That’s a 15% increase, and 2020 was already a banner year. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park also saw record numbers of visits, and most local parks and trails were busier than ever.

The pandemic has sent people outside in droves, desperate for COVID-safe exercise and respite from all the stress and uncertainty. As we return to something approaching “normal”, we will still see strong demand for parks, trails and greenways as millions of people have rediscovered that the outdoors improve their physical and mental health.

Parks and trails provide places to connect with nature, where conservation and stewardship values ​​can take root across age groups, demographics and ideologies. This is true in April when we observed Earth Day and it is true all year round.

Obviously, people love their parks and need them. But not everyone in North Carolina has easy access to outdoor recreation.

I live in the Triangle and I’m lucky – there seems to be a park or greenway everywhere you turn. But in many rural or underserved communities, there is a distinct lack of recreational facilities for families to get out and heal. It’s a matter of environmental justice. Just as no community should bear a disproportionate burden of pollution damage to human health, no community should lack access to positive environmental assets like parks, trails and greenways.

Fortunately, substantial new public funding is on the way to provide more recreational opportunities. The state budget invests about $200 million in increased funding to create, expand, and maintain state and local parks and trails. Additionally, approximately $100 million is available for land conservation projects that preserve open spaces. We hope a significant portion of the new funding can help address inequitable access to outdoor recreation.

These investments will create transformational changes in park accessibility, and they are a clear sign that lawmakers on both sides and Governor Roy Cooper recognize the tremendous value North Carolinians place on the many opportunities for outdoor recreation.

In the meantime, families interested in healthy outdoor exercise have plenty of destination information online. The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ Parks and Trails for Health (PATH) initiative provides encouragement and information about nearby sites, opportunities to try, and suggestions to help you find something again or less crowded.

It is especially important for children to be outdoors in nature from an early age in order to develop a lifelong love and respect for the outdoors. Our goal should be for every North Carolina resident to live within 10 minutes of a park, trail or greenway. It is an ambitious goal, but it is necessary to improve public health and improve the quality of life. Plus, it’s achievable if we engage with local communities to help build their capacity to add these popular amenities.

And let’s not forget that expanding our parks and trails infrastructure has clear economic benefits: better health outcomes; the expansion of outdoor equipment manufacturers, outfitters and other tourism-related businesses; and create communities where people want to live and work. The more outdoor recreation there is, the stronger the local economy.

So get out for a walk, hike, or bike ride every day you can, not just on Earth Day. You’ll improve your physical fitness and mental health, and reconnect with the land we all depend on. And you will have fun!

D. Reid Wilson is secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.