Nevada Legislature should seize on chance to use outdoors to inspire children

Originally published in the Las Vegas Sun

Nevada is home to some of the most beautiful and unique natural environments in the world. From mountainous peaks and painted desserts to the visible galaxies of the darkest night skies in the continental U.S., Nevada’s varied landscapes inspire curiosity, creativity and a sense of wonder in children and adults alike.

Yet for too many children in Nevada, visiting and learning about these places is out of reach.

Financial and transportation barriers leave some kids stranded in the city, within view of awe-inspiring environments but unable to reach them or learn about them in meaningful ways. Even for those who can reach them, a lack of access to experts and educators who can help them interpret what they’re seeing can diminish the educational and inspirational value of the great outdoors.

In 2019, to resolve this lack of access, the Nevada Legislature created the Outdoor Education and Recreation Grant Program. The program seeks to provide quality opportunities for underserved Nevada students to improve academic achievement and physical health by providing them with meaningful and memorable outdoor experiences. Unfortunately, despite creating the program, the Legislature did not fund it.

That’s why Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui proposed Assembly Bill 128, which would provide $500,000 in annual funding for the program for the next two years. This is in addition to Gov. Joe Lombardo’s proposal to provide $250,000 for the program in his biennial budget.

We are proud to offer our wholehearted support to both Lombardo’s proposed funding for the program and to AB 128 as much-needed investments in Nevada’s children and economy. We encourage the Legislature to pass AB 128 before the conclusion of the current session.

Disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with the natural environment provides significant health and cognitive benefits that help children be creative, curious, innovative and less anxious or stressed. Numerous studies have found correlations between time spent outside and improved problem-solving skills, increased academic and standardized test performance and fewer behavioral and attendance problems.

For children with an interest in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), the organic spaces can be especially inspiring. For generations, future engineers have marveled at the seemingly impossible flight of a bumblebee while future physicists and astronomers have stared into the night sky imagining the limitless possibilities for scientific discovery. Simultaneously, future doctors, pharmacists and chemists have wondered about what life-saving drugs and civilization-altering compounds might be found in the plants, animals, bacteria, soil and minerals that live all around us.

Nevada’s biggest and most well-known economic drivers all rely on an understanding and appreciation of the natural environment and the science surrounding it. An army of geologists, hydrologists, chemists and engineers are leading the efforts to find and extract the rare earth metals needed for high-capacity batteries in our cellphones, laptops and electric vehicles. These same professions are at the forefront of the power-generation industry, identifying materials and designs to improve the efficiency of solar and wind farms.

And it will undoubtedly be scientists with an appreciation for Earth’s complex systems and architecture who find solutions to the West’s water crisis. They are the best equipped to identify new sources of water in the short term and innovative means of reducing water consumption and recycling existing water supplies in the long term.

All of that is in addition to the economic benefits of travel and tourism due to the recreational opportunities afforded by the landscape itself.

According to Outdoor Industry Association and the Nevada Outdoor Business Coalition, which cited data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “outdoor recreational activities sustain over 50,500 jobs across Nevada and bring in $4.9 billion in (gross domestic product) annually for the Silver State. The state is home to an ample swath of public lands and is well known amongst lovers of the outdoors from across the United States for its numerous first-class recreation amenities.”

In other words, funding the Outdoor Education and Recreation Grant Program is not a partisan issue. It is about recognizing the reality that an understanding and appreciation of the natural environment is good for our kids and good for our economy.

The funding proposed by Lombardo and Jauregui represents a relatively small financial investment that will benefit the physical and mental health of our children, promote our children’s immediate academic performance, and serve as a launchpad for our children’s and Nevada’s future economic prosperity. The Legislature should pass these proposed funding measures at the earliest opportunity.

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