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Opinion/Commentary: Beyond Earth Day: The value of nature and giving back

Opinion/Commentary: Beyond Earth Day: The value of nature and giving back

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As nature reawakens, vibrant blossoms and birdsong herald more than spring this year. Hope, too, is being renewed, as some semblance of normal life seems just around the corner.

But returning to normal also means that serious environmental challenges still face each and every one of us. The good news is that, as more of us are vaccinated, we will soon have fewer limitations on our ability to collaborate and to act with the utmost urgency required to address habitat loss, rising sea levels and the whole host of threats presented by our increasingly unstable climate.

The first Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970, inspired 20 million Americans to rise up and demand a cleaner, more livable planet. In 1990, Earth Day went global. As we enter the second half-century of these annual celebration-meets-awareness events, 1 billion people in nearly 200 countries already have mobilized in support of a healthy planet Earth.

Nature gives each of us life and supports our livelihoods, so simple logic should compel us to protect our own habitat. Yet action rarely comes without passion. If there’s a proverbial silver lining in the darkness that gathered around us this past year, I would point to how many of us have connected — or reconnected — to our natural world.

In 2020, we saw record numbers of people turning to nature to exercise their bodies and ease their minds. In our national park system, for example, while closures during the peak of the pandemic led to a small dip in overall visitation numbers, at least 15 parks saw more visitors than ever before. Shenandoah National Park, our Virginia icon, welcomed nearly 300,000 additional visitors from the previous year — an astounding fact considering the park remained shuttered for six weeks last spring.

For decades now, scientists have been touting a multitude of physical and mental benefits from engaging with nature. The list of documented mental benefits is long and growing longer every year: lower stress, higher job and life satisfaction, improved short-term memory, sharpened concentration and elevated creativity. Though more research needs to be done, early findings suggest that benefits to our physical health may be just as significant.

Over the past year, more of us than ever have felt deep down the power of nature and how necessary it is to our overall well-being. While every day should be Earth Day, as the saying goes, this time of year does offer many of the best opportunities to give back to nature for everything nature gives to us.

Despite ongoing challenges related to the pandemic, the global conservation community has marshalled its creativity and come up with so many ways to participate either in person or virtually that there truly is something for everyone this year. My organization, The Nature Conservancy — to cite the example with which I’m most familiar — is offering options ranging from an online global celebration to a local citizen science project.

One option, which I encourage every resident of Charlottesville or Albemarle County to participate in, is the worldwide City Nature Challenge (citynaturechallenge.org) from April 30 through May 2. To take part, you will need the free iNaturalist app on a smartphone or computer. Aside from that, all you need is a willingness to get outside, take photos of plants and animals at a local park or in your own backyard, and upload your images to iNaturalist. All observations posted in our local challenge area during this four-day period will be collected and, ultimately, help inform ongoing scientific research and conservation.

The inaugural Earth Day helped usher in a new “back to nature” movement: As people entered the political arena to fight for more environmental protections, many also sought to establish a more personal connection to the natural world.

In today’s rapidly urbanizing world, maintaining our relationship with the natural world has become perhaps the defining challenge of our time. But as the past year has made clear, nature is still there to support us — at least so far. Now it’s time for a new movement to give back to nature.

Locke Ogens is Virginia state director for The Nature Conservancy.

Locke Ogens is Virginia state director for The Nature Conservancy.

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