By Nia Simone McLeod
As the leaves begin to change color and the temperature outside starts to cool down, the season of fall is the perfect time to head out and enjoy the great outdoors. Enjoying time within nature is a great way to get away from the often hectic hustle and bustle of life and explore your interests in brand new ways. This week, in particular, is a great time to explore the vast and varied public lands that are open to you in Virginia. From September 22nd to the 29th, Virginia is celebrating Public Lands Week. This special observation is focused on showcasing the true importance of our state’s public lands and why we need to prioritize conserving them. Public lands make a true difference within the Virginia community in a variety of different ways.
From young to old, skilled to amateur, public lands provide a resource for everyone to enjoy outdoor recreation. If you are into fishing, Virginia provides over 176,000 acres of public lakes and 27,300 miles of fishable streams. There is a wide variety of freshwater fish that you can search for including bass, catfish, and trout. When it comes to hunting, there are dozens of managed lands filled with acres upon acres of nature that are open to you if you obtain a hunting license in the state of Virginia. There are also 300 miles of controlled access trails across Virginia’s 24 state forests if you are looking for a place to take a walk or ride your bike and enjoy the scenery. You can even go horseback riding on these trails; if that sparks your interest. Outdoor recreation provides an endless stream of resources to anyone who is looking to explore a new hobby or practice an old one. There are also 37 Virginia state parks that each offer a unique experience. They provide beaches, festivals, concerts, meeting facilities, nature programs, and more that are easily accessible to the public.
For the state as a whole, public lands provide a uniquely viable economic source. Julie Buchanan, the Senior Public Relations and Marketing Specialist for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, says that public lands play a huge part in both state and local economies, “Virginia’s state parks attracted 10.4 million visitors last year and generated more than $300 million in economic activity. Virginia’s outdoor recreation economy accounts for $21.9 billion in consumer spending, nearly 200,000 direct jobs, and $1.2 billion in state and local tax revenue.” This revitalization of the economy helps our community flourish and creates job opportunities for those yearning to turn their love of nature into a profession.
One of the individuals who has done just that is York River State Park’s educational support specialist John Gresham. After he earned a Bachelor’s degree in agricultural education from Virginia State University he fell into his career at York River State Park accidentally, “I was a substitute teacher in King & Queen County and I needed a summer job. I was thinking that I was coming over here to cut grass and clean toilets, but my background helped me become an educational specialist instead.” Gresham has a diverse background that deep dives into many different fields. Due to his background in agricultural education, his experience in public speaking due to his past as a teacher and a Baptist pastor, and his interest in outdoor photography, he was hired as the educational support specialist at York River State Park. Along with that, he is also a master naturalist, a watershed educator, and a certified interpretive guide. In his spare time, he also blogs frequently for York River State Park as well.
During his nine years working in the park, he has witnessed a ton of incredible wildlife and has helped many different people explore their interest in the outdoors. When asked about who has impacted him the most over the years, John Gresham thinks back to the school-aged children that he has worked with in the past. He recalls working with children from Richmond Public Schools through the Blue Sky Fund over the past six years, which is a non-profit that brings urban youth to natural areas to enjoy and learn from outdoor education. He has also worked with children from suburban areas of Virginia including Prince Edward County. Gresham talks fondly about his past experiences working with children saying, “It’s been an inspiration for me to share the park with these children who often don’t get a chance to experience nature.”
When it comes to the importance of public lands, Gresham calls public lands a place for “everyone to enjoy nature,” “It’s not just a reserve or for those who are lucky enough to own land on the mountainside or on the side of a river. Everybody has a chance to enjoy the scenic views and wildlife. Without public lands, people would be limited to zoos or private features. That only benefits a handful of people, not the population in general.”
To Julie Buchanan, public lands should be preserved because they provide immense benefits to our community, “Public lands, parks, forests, rivers, streams, and unique landscapes need to be protected for future generations. It’s impossible to replace them once they’re gone.”
Public lands are essential parts of our state that provide endless opportunities to community members everywhere. They are boosting the economy and providing life-changing opportunities to members of the community near and far. Additionally, they are providing us with a true view of the deep nature around us that many people can’t get anywhere else. It is immensely important to conserve public lands and acknowledge their importance throughout our community. Be sure to explore the public lands around you during Virginia’s Public Lands Week and beyond to show your support.
For a list of events at various parks across the state celebrating Virginia’s Public Lands Week, be sure to check out a full list here. For more opportunities to help preserve your public lands, check out these organizations throughout Virginia: Virginia Conservation Network, Virginia’s United Land Trusts, The Nature Conservancy, and Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation