Outdoor recreation: Tell the state what you want!

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By Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Do you enjoy spending time outdoors at New Jersey’s parks, nature preserves, recreation areas, beaches and other open-air places? If so, how can your experience be improved? If you don’t get outside much, what can be done to make outdoor recreation more accessible and appealing?

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The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) wants to know!

As the agency in charge of hundreds of state parks, forests, recreation areas, historic sites and natural areas, the DEP just launched an online survey to learn how New Jerseyans are currently using outdoor spaces, and what additional facilities and programs they’d like to see in the future.

“Every resident of New Jersey deserves easy access to quality parks and open spaces where they can enjoy the environment we share,” explains DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette.

New Jersey is an exceptionally diverse state, both in its geography and populations. A major challenge is making sure that all residents – whether they live in big cities, suburbs or rural hamlets – have access to outdoor recreation in their communities and are given a say in how public dollars are allocated.

Last spring, LaTourette introduced a new initiative called “Outside, Together!” to increase public engagement and input. He also created a 24-member Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee to oversee the update of New Jersey’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), which guides land acquisition, park development, funding and program decisions.

New Jersey’s SCORP must be updated every five years in order for the state to remain eligible for federal grants, such as those awarded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Recreational Trails Program. Together, these grants bring about $7 to $8 million a year to New Jersey.

The Outside, Together! initiative places special emphasis on ensuring there will be green spaces in New Jersey’s cities and in communities of color, to improve access to nature and the quality of life in these communities.

The new Outside, Together! survey – available online through March 22 – will give New Jersey’s 9 million residents a greater voice. It’s voluntary and confidential, and takes about 10 minutes to complete at https://dep.nj.gov/outside-together/survey/.

One survey question asks residents what outdoor activities they’ve done in New Jersey in the past year. For example, did they walk or hike, bike, ski or snowboard, play sports on fields or courts, bring children to a playground, fish, watch birds, paddle a kayak, picnic, camp, hunt, sit quietly or meditate, take a guided nature walk or historic tour, swim in a public pool, visit a splash park, or swim in an ocean, lake or river?

Another question asks residents what causes them not to participate in outdoor recreation as much as they want. Barriers may include a lack of transportation, overcrowding at local parks, no one to go with, safety concerns, a lack of facilities like restrooms and water fountains, not being able to afford equipment and gear, not knowing what’s available, worries about ticks and other insects, or no cell phone reception in remote areas.

The survey asks residents what would motivate them to get outside more. Possibilities include easier access to parks via public transit, more neighborhood trails, additional parking at popular spots, food concessions and equipment rentals at parks, more “active” park features like playgrounds, more “passive” features like picnic tables, or more guided nature walks and other programming.

The survey requests demographic information, including age, gender, race/ethnicity, zip code, education level, household size and makeup, and language spoken at home. However, it does not ask for participants’ names, addresses or any other identifying information.

“Through this Outside, Together! survey, my DEP colleagues and I hope to learn more from the public we serve about their outdoor needs,” said LaTourette. “With the help of our Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, community leaders, and everyone who participates in this survey, DEP will build an outdoor recreation plan that better connects people to nature and one another.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began three years ago, many people have rediscovered the joy of spending time in the great outdoors. Not only is being in the sunshine and fresh air good for physical and mental health, it’s a fun and safe way to gather with friends and family members.

What do you want for yourself, your family and your community? Whether it’s bird walks, community gardens, hike and bike trails, basketball courts or places to quietly meditate, now’s the time to speak up! You’ve got the power to help shape the future of outdoor recreation near you, and make sure that New Jersey’s overburdened communities are fairly represented.

To learn more about Outside, Together! visit https://dep.nj.gov/outside-together/. For questions about the Outside, Together! initiative or the survey, contact the DEP at Outside.Together@dep.nj.gov.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including great places to enjoy the outdoors and nature – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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