By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Ricardo Cortes' oldest son started kindergarten at their neighbourhood school in Oakland, California, he was disheartened by the barren, baking schoolyard.
"It literally reminded me of a prison. It's got these huge, high chain-link fences, bare asphalt, no shade," the 48-year-old police officer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Although his two sons, now ages 7 and 9, are attending school remotely due to the pandemic, things could start to change by the time they go back.
Next week, alongside choosing the president and other elected officials, Oakland voters could make available $200 million for school improvements based on COVID-19 requirements.
The improvements include what backers call green or living schoolyards, areas that could also be opened to the broader public.
"Green schoolyards can benefit not only the children at that school, they can provide an accessible network of oases around the whole city," said Amanda Brown-Stevens, executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a nonprofit that supports the proposal.
On Election Day, voters in nearly 50 jurisdictions around the country could create $3.6 billion in funding for parks, open spaces and other public lands, according to a tally by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit.
In part these are a response to the coronavirus pandemic, during which outdoor activities have been considered safer, said Bill Lee, the trust's senior vice president.
But record-high use of parks has underscored longstanding concerns around equitable access, he said.
Across the United States, 100 million people lack access to parks within a 10-minute walk of their homes, Lee said.
In addition, parks serving primarily non-white populations are half the size of those serving majority-white areas and serve five times as many people per acre, he said.
"People knew this intuitively from walking around their cities, but the pandemic has brought it home," he said.
The group is leading a national coalition urging legislators to include $500 million in a stimulus bill to "jumpstart park creation in park-poor neighborhoods," Lee said.
'FOLLOWING UP ON THE RHETORIC'
Equity considerations have become a major focus for parks development in Portland, Oregon, where voters will be asked to approve a tax levy worth about $48 million a year for parks, said Randy Gragg, executive director of the Portland Parks Foundation.
A key part of the strategy is to create equitable access, Gragg said.
Many communities of color live in east Portland, where 40% of households lack access to a park within a half mile, he said.
"This has been a long-term conversation, but its edge has been particularly sharpened by the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement," he said, adding that the levy would "really change the face of access for families facing economic problems".
In San Francisco, the pandemic's economic impact is spurring an effort to address open space and create jobs.
Nearly half of a proposed $487.5 million bond is targeted at neighborhood parks and green space, said Drew Becher, chief executive with SF Parks Alliance.
In the pandemic, parks have come to be seen "not just as niceties but as necessities", he said, pointing out that overflow hospitals have been set up in city parks.
If voters approve the proposal, backers will seek to focus on neighbourhoods of color, he said.
"It's about equity and following up on the rhetoric with actual dollars into these communities."
Public lands initiatives on the ballot will not focus only on urban spaces, with voters in at least two states being asked to try novel state-wide strategies.
In Colorado, voters will decide whether to require state officials to devise a plan to reintroduce grey wolves to the wild - the first time in the country that the public has been allowed such an opportunity.
If successful, there is significant scope for such action outside of Colorado, experts say, though the issue remains highly contentious.
"The extent of public lands in the West gives us unique opportunities for biodiversity conservation and restoration," said Courtney Schultz, director of the Public Lands Policy Group at Colorado State University.
"At the same time we have to stay cognizant of the history of the many users and communities around public lands that make this a complex issue."
Opponents say the wolf that used to live in Colorado is now extinct and that the animal that would be introduced is much larger and more aggressive, and would be harmful to certain native wildlife.
In Montana, voters will decide whether to legalize adult cannabis use - and to funnel nearly half of resulting tax revenue into conservation and supporting public lands.
That makes sense for a state with an outdoor recreation industry worth some $7 billion a year, said Aaron Murphy, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, which has endorsed the measures.
"Public lands has been a major issue for this entire election season," he said.
The initiative would eventually bring in about $18 million a year for public lands, said Murphy.
"In the West, public lands and private lands are a strange patchwork," he said. "This can help purchase parcels that makes them a bit more accessible."
'FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT VISIONS'
National politics are the inevitable focus of this year's election, as voters prepare to decide between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, but public lands remain a key issue.
"It is undoubtedly the case that public lands are becoming a bigger and bigger political issue in this country," said Alex Taurel, conservation program director with the League of Conservation Voters, which has endorsed Biden.
"These are two fundamentally different visions for public lands."
Trump's administration has focused on deregulation and energy production on public lands, including in offshore waters, Taurel said.
The president has attempted to remove protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands, 1,000 times more than his administration has protected, according to May research by the Center for American Progress think tank.
In contrast, Biden supports a plan to conserve nearly a third of U.S. lands and waters by the end of the decade.
The governance of public lands is always fraught, but the Trump administration has ignored delicate multi-stakeholder initiatives, roiling processes that took decades to build up, said James Skillen, associate professor of environmental studies at Calvin University in Michigan.
Neither the Interior Department nor the Trump campaign responded to requests for comment.
"What the Trump administration is doing is disrupting a wide range of agreements," said Skillen, author of "This Land is My Land: Rebellion in the West".
"The long-term danger is the more that happens, the less willing people are to invest in a consensus-type approach to public lands."
(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)