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Opinion: Here’s why it’s important for you to get outside during the new year

It’s time to raise awareness of the health benefits of nature, take actions to protect nature and enhance accessibility to nature for all.

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Hiking the Zion Narrows.

Mike Godfrey

Nature abounds in Utah. We boast about having “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” share our five stunning national parks, enjoy mountain bike trails minutes from downtown Salt Lake City, and take pride in our world-class natural history museum. The largest living tree — named Pando — has a home in the center of our state, and the gold and crimsons of aspen foliage grace our foothills. We all need access to nature.

Many Utahns recognize the multiple benefits of nature, and participate in efforts to understand, enjoy and protect it. During conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 60% of Utahns surveyed stated that they visited Utah’s outdoors, the Tracy Aviary and our numerous pocket parks. 

Our spiritual leaders understand the vital connections between nature and people. The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square frequently sings songs that celebrate nature, and our pioneers fostered sustainability of water, soils and other natural resources. The Salt Lake City Library has created a seed-saving project, which strengthens connections among people, healthy food and backyard gardens. St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral installed solar panels to reduce its carbon footprint. The First Unitarian Church provides a demonstration garden on its grounds.

The interweaving of nature and people also stimulates our economy. A 2021 study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah documented that Utah’s outdoors are critical to the tech industry to recruit and retain employees. More than 80% of respondents stated that access to wilderness and outdoor recreation was the most important factor in choosing to stay here. 

The proximity of nature provides Utahns with benefits to physical, mental and emotional well-being. Interactions with nature of all types — live wilderness expeditions, views of nature and even the sounds and smells of nature — can speed healing from physical trauma, calm our spirits, reduce anxiety, increase our ability to learn and retain knowledge, and restore a sense of equilibrium in our busy lives. 

Trees in city spaces help cool “urban heat islands” by reducing energy demand and decreasing the production of emissions. Groups such as The Nature Conservancy, the Sageland Collaborative and Tree Utah raise awareness and provide access to nature of many stripes.

But is access to the benefits of nature for human health accessible to all Utahns? The answer is no — or at least, not yet. A study by American Forests on other American cities documented a disturbing pattern of unequal distribution of trees and other green spaces that has deprived less privileged people of the health benefits that the presence of nature elements can deliver.

Gaining access to nature’s health benefits can depend on people having the physical, cultural and financial capacity to do so. Mountain bikes, ski passes and entry fees to national parks are beyond the means of many who live here. Many of our science education venues make efforts to increase a sense of belonging for all people, but past practices reinforce a sense of exclusion for low-income and underserved populations; long-held stereotypes that are difficult to overcome. 

Arches National Park.

Arches National Park is pictured on Saturday, April 17, 2021.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

In 2019, a group of people from many sectors of society formed “Nature and Human Health-Utah.” Its mission is to raise awareness of health benefits of nature, take actions to protect nature and enhance accessibility to nature for all Utahns. These efforts are modeled on a group at the University of Washington, which, recognizing that experts concerned with nature and human health tend to circulate in their own professional and disciplinary spheres, created opportunities for exchange among representatives of diverse professional backgrounds.

Our group in Utah has a current membership of more than 100 individuals whose interests and experiences include academic science, natural history, recreation, psychology, spirituality, mental and physical health, and gardening. During the pandemic, we met virtually and are now meeting in safe spaces to implement our projects. In 2021, a philanthropist provided support to coordinate these efforts and to support pilot projects and annual conferences that concern the critical connections between nature and human health.

In these times, when the health of both humans and nature are under threat, all Utahns must help to foster synergistic ways to keep the links between us strong and sustained. Visit our website — natureandhealthutah.org — to find out more — and to join us in these efforts.

Information about NHH-UT from @theU: attheu.utah.edu/announcements/new-research-practice-collaborative-group-explores-connection-between-nature-and-health.

Nalini Nadkarni is a professor emeritus at the University of Utah’s School of Biological Sciences and studies rainforest ecology and conservation in Costa Rica, Washington state, and Utah.

Tim Brown is president and CEO of Tracy Aviary.

Dorothy (Dart) Schmalz is associate professor and interim chairwoman of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at the University of Utah. She studies social stigma and prejudice as they affect health behavior and treatment, and interconnections of recreation, nature and well-being.