Best of the West: Increasing equitable access to parks and outdoor recreation; a data-efficient mega lab; and a ground-breaking space mission

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting May 30, 2022. (Photos courtesy of Philip Graves and Samuel Wilson/Chronicle/Report for America)

June is Great Outdoors Month, and while westerners celebrate their state’s awe-inspiring natural beauty and the quality of life it affords, they’re also working to increase outdoor access for all – especially those in underserved and underrepresented communities. 

Not only does access to open spaces and parks improve the health of community members, it also significantly boosts local economies. A new study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that People who are exposed to the greenest environments also have the lowest levels of health inequality among low-income households. Physical environments, like parks and trails, that promote good health might be important to reduce socioeconomic health inequalities.” A recent report released by the National Recreation and Park Association found that in 2019, the combined impact of operations and spending by local parks and recreation agencies generated $218 billion in economic activity. 

With only three cities in the top 10 of the 2022 Park Index, which ranks park systems though out the country, many western states have enacted policies and programs to increase diversity and access. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the Nevada Agreement for Recreation Shared Stewardship, which will use multi-agency collaboration to address the issues communities and the natural environment face, as well as advance outdoor recreation opportunities. California State Parks is addressing the lack of access with a $57 million investment between 125 communities to advance the ‘Outdoor Access for All’ initiative

Other western states are increasing access to public spaces by opening new state parks. The Utah state legislature passed a bill in 2021 that created two new state parks to meet the increasing demand for outdoor spaces. Lost Creek State Park will offer visitors another water-recreation park, and Utahraptor State Park is located in an area known for dinosaur fossils. California is opening the Dos Rios Ranch east of San Francisco — its first state park in 13 years. Montana also recently opened the Somers Beach State Park on the northwest shore of Flathead Lake. 

Western cities are also building urban parks to increase access and equity. Tucson, Arizona, plans to build a 5-mile linear park and recreational path along the Gila River’s southern bank. The trail passes along rural areas and expands access to the river. Spokane, Washington, drafted the ‘Spokane Parks and Recreation’s Parks and Natural Lands Master Plan,’ which will address the role of city parks in homelessness. “I really would love to see Spokane be smarter than a lot of other cities in getting ahead of understanding how to strike that balance between the rights of all people to exist in public space while maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for all park users,” said Anna Laybourn, the plan’s lead consultant. 

Some states have even enacted policies that directly incentivize people to get outside. South Dakota allows doctors to write a prescription for exercise, which allows patients to obtain free park passes for a day. Families in Texas can borrow camping equipment through the Texas Outdoor Family Program. As part of a $3 million outdoor equity grant, youth in Colorado can check out backpacks at public libraries that come with park passes, maps, wildlife brochures and binoculars. 

But western cities and states don’t have to go at it alone. Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior, announced that 26 economically underserved communities are eligible for $61 million in grants through the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership. Some communities in Colorado, California, New MexicoTexas and Washington qualify. They can use the funding to create new parks and trails or complete renovations in existing locations. The DOI is also investing $279 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to support public parks and outdoor recreation access in all 50 states. The Bureau of Land Management kicked off Great Outdoors Month by finalizing two land acquisitions in Colorado and Wyoming that will unlock over 40,000 acres of previously inaccessible public land. 

Boosting Data Efficiency: Intel is opening a $700 million data center in Oregon to help facilities maximize efficiency by reducing heating and cooling use. More specifically, the ‘mega lab’ will research a ‘liquid immersion cooling' technology that ‘submerges computers into a special liquid that doesn’t conduct electricity but absorbs heat generated by the machines.’ Researchers believe liquid cooling could absorb 1,500 times more heat than air, the heat from which could warm homes or offices. 

Mission Possible: NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working on a ground-breaking mission that will provide valuable information to ‘address major environmental challenges of the future in support of weather, ocean and climate operations in the U.S.’ The GeoXO mission will advance Earth observations from geostationary orbit. Colorado-based Ball Aerospace and Raytheon Intelligence and Space out of California will assist the research to provide a definition-phase study of a GeoXO OCX instrument. The research provides hourly observations of ocean biology, chemistry and ecology to evaluate environmental conditions. 

Spring Cleaning Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells: The Department of the Interior is investing $33 million of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding in orphaned oil and gas well cleanup. The money will go towards 277 projects nationwide, including several projects in OklahomaCaliforniaUtah and Texas. “I have seen firsthand how the orphaned oil and gas wells left behind by extractive industries lead to hazardous pollution, water contamination and safety hazards for our communities,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Read about Western Governors' support for abandoned oil and gas well cleanup in a letter to the Senate.  

From Band Class to Carnegie Hall: An eighth-grade saxophone player will represent Montana during a performance at the world-famous Carnegie Hall. Kei Braun was the only Montanan selected to perform with the National Middle School Honor Band, which includes musicians from 39 states and Canada. The students will spend five days in New York City rehearsing before the performance. Braun began playing saxophone in 2019 and started because of his love of 1950s and 1960s jazz music. “Honestly, I still can’t believe I made it in,” he said.

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