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Public Lands for the Public's Health

March 2003

Citation: ELR 10217

Author: Richard A. Goodman and Marc L. Miller

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life.

—John Muir (1898)

A walk in the park is one of our finest cultural opportunities, a value that people expect to find available in their community.

—National Association of State Park Directors

Cardiovascular diseases, epidemic obesity, and other major public health problems in the United States are strongly associated with physical inactivity and other life-style-related risk factors. With the increasing prevalence of obesity, and with physical inactivity high on the list of risk factors for obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and a multitude of major health problems, clinical and public health experts have emphasized the critical importance of increasing levels of physical activity. While efforts to increase leisure-time physical activity have emphasized activities centered around the home and neighborhood, improving public health through increased physical activity may require additional, innovative approaches. Local and state governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should consider new strategies and programs to encourage physical activity.

The systems of public parks operated by state governments throughout the Unites States are a potential public health resource for increasing levels of physical activity. Local and state governments could employ the roughly 8.5 million acres of state parks to promote healthy, risk-reducing activities that would help to improve public health.

Surprisingly, health advocates and park administrators only recently have begun to consider the role that public parks might play in public health. The previous lack of recognition may reflect traditional administrative divisions and institutional barriers: the government agencies that manage state parks typically have little interaction with the government agencies that service human health, and neither sector typically links public lands with the public's health. State park public relations materials sometimes mention recreation and, occasionally, fitness, but they do not connect recreation to health. The public attitude is similar: people perceive parks as places for nature conservation and public recreation, but they have not necessarily made the connection between recreation and health.

This Article focuses on the state of Georgia to examine the role state parks could play in public health. While a single state cannot serve as a universal model, it can provide a concrete focus for analysis, and may provide deeper insights than more general or abstract studies.

Richard Goodman, M.D., J.D., works for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention. Marc Miller, J.D., is a professor of law at Emory University School of Law. They appreciate the wise counsel and assistance of William Buzbee, William Dietz, and Robert Fabian, and the research assistance of Tracey Denton and Jason Herman. They gratefully acknowledge the information and assistance provided for this Article by many people. In particular, they thank;

Glenn Alexander—Executive Director, National Association of State Park Directors;

Jennifer Blattman—Division of Public Policy, National Recreation and Park Association;

Ross Brownson—Professor, St. Louis University School of Public Health;

David Buchner—Epidemiologist, Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, CDC;

Chuck Gregory—Director of Volunteer Services, Parks, Recreation, and Historic Sites Division, Georgia Department of Natural Resources;

Tom Martin—Executive Director, Georgia Recreation and Park Association;

Ed McBrayer—Executive Director, PATH Foundation;

Dan McClean—Associate Professor, Department of Recreation and Park Administration, Indiana University;

Vicki Pilgrim—Public Health Program Consultant, Georgia Department of Human Resources;

Tom Schmid—Epidemiologist, Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, CDC;

Kathy Spangler—Director of National Programs, National Recreation and Park Association;

John Walden—Legal Executive Assistant, Georgia Department of Natural Resources;

Burt Weerts—Director, Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, Georgia Department of Natural Resources; and

Harvey Young—Coordinator of Georgia Greenspace Program, Office of Commissioner, Department of Natural Resources.

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