Nearly every weekend since we began this grinding coronavirus lockdown, my family has fled to the outdoors for much-needed stress relief. We find escape and joy in the wild places of the Farmington River watershed, hiking wooded paths strewn with mossy boulders to discover charming coldwater brooks and magnificent views. As we spotted trilliums one Saturday, my heart was full like their almost-flowering buds.
This is nature as pandemic defense, keeping us sane and healthy. It offers up a temporary coronavirus refuge. The virus can feel remote on a roomy trail easy for social distancing and with few fellow hikers. I can turn off my wearying vigilance about what my young daughters touch. Towering white pines pose no threat. We are safe, for a time.
All of that points to a deeper lesson. Nature is absolutely essential to pandemic defense and recovery -– and its many public health and economic benefits must be there for everyone. If we let it, nature can help us get through this, even help us thrive under the adversity.
I know my family is lucky. We have a home, two incomes, and our health, at least for now. We can afford to spend our time and money on an outdoor adventure. We have the means and the privilege to hunt for restorative nature. That is not so for many in Connecticut, however. And that needs to change. Fast.
Our state may be small, but it enjoys a strong natural heritage – beautiful rivers and forests and parks and beaches to be proud of – and it is working overtime right now. More and more parks need to be closed every weekend due to reaching their safe pandemic capacity. Park closures are even happening on weekdays. This capacity problem will only grow worse as coronavirus mitigation continues through the summer and likely beyond. People rightly seek out the natural world to escape the pandemic’s mental and physical burdens, but it is not always available or close. We need more nature, more green open spaces, to sustain a long-term and successful public health response to the coronavirus.
So let’s be bold and create it. Let’s make more state and city parks with new trails and fields open to all, let’s build more walkable and bike-friendly greenways in our cities and towns by closing down and tearing up some streets, let’s teach everyone how to grow a rain garden with native plantings in their backyards. Let’s restore more neglected rivers and streams by pulling down useless dams that block migratory fish and increase flood risks. Let’s pull nature back from the margins as fast as we can.
Opportunities to enlist nature in the emergency pandemic fight abound. All along the Farmington River and its tributaries, for instance, there are promising options. A major dam in Bristol that is shovel ready for removal but for the funding. A closed golf course in Simsbury that could make an amazing riverside park. Working farms with valuable riverbank land that may want to make deals right now to protect that land forever in exchange for financial help. And this is just one river.
These worthy projects would create productive work, too – jobs that could be done outdoors, safely, for good pay, and some almost immediately. For over 400,000 recently unemployed Connecticut residents, this work could be an attractive option, if conducted with necessary coronavirus protections. We could launch this emergency employment initiative as the new Civilian Conservation Corps for the pandemic era, one that would focus on putting people to work building virus-suppressing natural solutions, while also helping pull the economy out of the pandemic ditch it fell into.
Distressed communities urgently need this help and must be the highest priority. Long shut out from the many health benefits of green space and clean air, these communities are disproportionately burdened with asthma and other illnesses that increase vulnerability to the coronavirus. They are now suffering the worst ravages of COVID-19 and its intense respiratory attack. Restoring nature to everyday lives is a matter of survival and justice in these communities.
So it is time to be even bolder to save even more lives. Pandemic resilience is now the fundamental goal of almost everything we do. Nature can play a critical role in protecting public health and our economy from the coronavirus, both now and in the future. Our pandemic recovery plans should embrace it.
Bill Dornbos is the Executive Director of the Farmington River Watershed Association, Inc., a nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1953 to protect and restore the Farmington River and its watershed lands.