A majority of Arizona voters say they care about increasing access to natural spaces for lower-income populations and communities of color, a new bipartisan poll revealed.
In the survey, 72% of respondents said ensuring marginalized communities are better connected to natural areas was important within the efforts of environmental conservation. Twenty-three percent said they viewed it as not very important or not important at all.
In the United States, communities of color are almost three times more likely than their white counterparts to live in “nature deprived” areas according to an analysis led by the Center for American Progress and the Hispanic Access Foundation.
Neighborhoods with a majority of Black, Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native or Asian American and Pacific Islander population have about 44% less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods, a different report looking at 100 large cities concluded.
In the new poll, Arizona voters said their top reasons to conserve land were to protect drinking water, to ensure healthier forests, to help threatened wildlife and to conserve wildlife habitat and migration routes.
Connecting marginalized communities with less access to the outdoors to natural areas was not the top reason to preserve, but was prioritized in comparison with other conservation goals. Providing opportunities for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation or ensuring dark-skies protection both ranked lower in the poll.
The Conservation in the West Poll is a yearly effort to measure public sentiment about conservation issues and voter priorities when it comes to the environment. The survey measures the support of U.S. voters in eight Western states on a number of conservation policies, both on historically important environmental issues and emerging ones. This year, researchers placed particular emphasis on the Colorado River and drought issues.
"Respondents also tell that we need to ensure there is access to parks and natural areas for all Americans," said Lori Weigel, the Republican pollster and principal of New Bridge Strategy in a media briefing on Wednesday.
Voters' feelings are echoed in the Outdoors for All bill, reintroduced on Wednesday by Sens. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine. The bipartisan legislation would expand outdoor recreational opportunities in urban and low-income communities across the nation.
In Arizona, where tree-shade equity is a proven issue, SB 1689 would fund planting trees at schools in lower-income neighborhoods. A different bill, SB 1508, would call for limits on how many major polluters can be sited in lower-income neighborhoods. The deadline for assigning these, and a dozen more bills on climate and environmental issues, was Friday.
Minding the gap: Access to nature is unequal
Spending more time outdoors and close to nature brings numerous health benefits, according to a large body of research. Being in natural areas, even if it's not in a "pristine" environment, can alleviate stress, increase academic and work performance, and aid people with clinical depression.
"These disparities are particularly concerning because nature is not an amenity but a necessity for everyone’s health and well-being," the report said.
The authors assert that the distribution of those disparities, and the brunt of environmental issues on racially and economically marginalized communities, is not an accident.
“It was a choice, made over generations, from redlining, to choosing to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods, to choosing to put parks in certain neighborhoods, and choosing to pave over communities of color to build highways and coal plants,” co-author Shanna Edberg told National Geographic in a recent interview.
The fact that a majority of voters sees this "nature gap" as an important issue to focus on is something that should be amplified, said Vanessa Muñoz, Conservation Program Manager of Hispanic Access Foundation.
The national nonprofit has been translating the Conservation in the West Poll results to Spanish since 2014, and providing guidance to the surveyors to ensure the representation of Latinos and Hispanic-Americans in the poll.
Offering the poll results in Spanish is important so that other members of the Latino community can be aware of voters' concerns around the environment and become more active in voicing their needs to representatives.
"That was a very interesting result: that everybody is concerned about that lack of access," Muñoz told The Arizona Republic. Often times this lack of access is connected to the fact that marginalized communities live in areas that lack green spaces, but it also happens that many do not have the transportation, the time nor the money to recreate in national parks.
To support the access of Latino communities to the outdoors and their involvement to protect natural resources, Hispanic Access Foundation created the Latino Conservation Week: Disfrutando y Conservando Nuestra Tierra. Each July individuals and organizations can apply for funding for outdoor events, anywhere from hiking and fishing trips to rafting and poetry events.
The initiative, which launched in 2014, has seen tremendous growth, from nine events then to over 230 last year.
“Our purpose is to create leaders and local support and breach that gap of need for outdoor recreation in communities of color. That can help us inform policy makers that there is that need. Realize that it is a necessity,” Muñoz said.