CultureOpinion

Op-Ed: Access to the Outdoors Is a Basic Human Right

New Mexico wants to create a first-of-its-kind Outdoor Equity Fund for underserved youth. Other states that care about preserving the natural world and raising a new generation of activists should take note.

Shiprock, in the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, New Mexico (Photo: Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr)
4 Corners

The Land of Enchantment: our state motto perfectly captures New Mexico and its sacred Zia, a harmonious symbol of friendship that originated in the Zia Pueblo.

The four words evoke a stunning landscape of mountains, rivers, deserts, forests, and Native American communities. The Land of Enchantment has sunsets that take your breath away, with skylines sketched on a canvas of reds, oranges, purples, and pinks.

The Land of Enchantment promises summers spent hiking, biking, and fishing along the Rio Grande, in the Sandias, or within the Organ Mountains. Winters are spent on the snowy slopes of Angel Fire, Ruidoso, Santa Fe, and Taos. October brings valley skies dotted with 1,000 hot-air balloons gliding across the horizon, while November sunrises attract early birds—thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese rising above the marshes of Bosque del Apache.

The Land of Enchantment is the written and lived culture of New Mexico, forged among the distinct and unique cultures of our pre-Hispanic, Spanish, and Native American ancestors.

But for many of our state’s youth, the Land of Enchantment is none of these things. It is not rafting, skiing, fishing, hiking, or wildlife watching. The barriers to access these opportunities are too numerous and too ingrained within their communities to overcome.

Our state’s kids have to contend with a whole host of issues that prevent them from getting outside, from a lack of transportation to a lack of resources to a lack of access to outdoor-education programs. Maybe they don’t have anyone in their lives who cares enough to introduce them to this enchanting natural world. The problems are endemic to the whole state: New Mexico ranks last in child well-being and education, first in childhood hunger, and second to last in childhood economic well-being. 

The two of us feel fortunate to have grown up in southern New Mexico, in communities where the outdoors was an integral part of our culture, from the Gila Wilderness to Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. And our respective upbringings, challenging in their own rights, still provided us with opportunities to see, value, understand, respect, and love the outdoors.

We are now also privileged to have been elected to positions to represent the people of New Mexico and trusted to make the right decisions for current and future generations. That commitment to our constituents drives our action in the state capital of Santa Fe. It drives our will to create and implement public policy that will impact the lives of all New Mexicans.

That’s why we’re championing efforts to create a state Office of Outdoor Recreation and—more importantly—a first-of-its-kind Outdoor Equity Fund.

The Outdoor Equity Fund, supported by more than 50 state and national organizations representing social, environmental, immigration, and health justice, will make the Land of Enchantment more accessible to everyone. All of our state’s youth deserve an opportunity to take advantage of the outdoor recreation and education opportunities our state so bountifully offers. We believe that access to the outdoors is a human right.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has promised to create an Office of Outdoor Recreation this legislative session within the Department of Economic Development. If passed by legislators, the Outdoor Equity Fund would also be created—the only fund of its kind in the nation that would be designed to spur the development of New Mexico’s next generation of conservationists.

The Outdoor Equity Fund would live alongside the Office of Outdoor Recreation and be administered by the Youth Conservation Corps for the sole purpose of serving underserved youth up to age 18 in our urban, rural, and Native American communities. 

The Fund asks for an initial appropriation of $100,000 from the state, and it invites private industry, foundations, individual donors, and outdoor retailers to pitch in, too. From there, microgrants would be disbursed to local governments—cities, counties, villages, and towns—as well as nonprofit organizations and Native American communities to help power programs that serve at least a 40 percent low-income youth population.

These microgrants, although small, can have big impacts on underserved groups. They can mean the difference between buying 20 tents for a camping trip or having to sleep outside. They can mean the difference between buying kids fishing poles or having them stand on the dock watching other families fish. They can mean the difference between visiting a local park or national forest or staying home because there’s not enough transportation money in the family budget.

The Outdoor Equity Fund can help transform the youth of our state. We can create communities with leaders who care about our climate, air, water, environment, wildlife, and natural resources. But first we must get them outside.

Outdoor-recreation careers are numerous in New Mexico, with more growth expected with the creation of the Office of Outdoor Recreation. Kids from Deming, EspaƱola, Farmington, and Santo Domingo Pueblo can be our future forest rangers, wildlife biologists, soil scientists, and fishing guides. But first we must invest in the next generation as much as we’re investing in tourists and retailers.

The benefits of going and playing outside are many—from mental and physical health gains to building community to learning outdoor skills to understanding the natural world and the impacts of a changing climate.

When New Mexico takes care of its youth, it takes care of its future. When we see the hands of many colors, communities, and income levels raised to those pink, purple, and orange skies and truly see the Land of Enchantment reflected on the horizon, then we can be proud of what the Zia symbol represents and all that it means for our kids.

We strongly encourage leaders in other states to create their own Outdoor Equity Funds. Come visit us here in the Land of Enchantment to see how sustainable, ethical outdoor recreation really gets done.

Stephanie Garcia Richard is the commissioner of public lands for New Mexico. Angelica Rubio is a representative for the state. Both women are from southern New Mexico.

Filed To: New MexicoFishingKidsWildlifeEnvironmentSanta FeBikingConservation
Lead Photo: Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr
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