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Equity fund introduces kids to outdoors

Sulphur Springs at the Valles Caldera National Preserve. (Courtesy of Valles Caldera)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A new state fund is designed to bring underprivileged young New Mexicans outdoors, and hopefully cultivate a lifelong interest in outdoor recreation in the process.

Stephen Hamway

The state’s Outdoor Recreation Division announced the 25 recipients of grants through the Outdoor Equity Fund last week. The fund provides small grants for New Mexico organizations that have committed to helping local students explore nature. Axie Navas, the division’s director, said the program is designed to fund projects that foster a love of the outdoors. Navas said this, in turn, encourages New Mexico students to pursue careers in the industry, creating a workforce for jobs ranging from land management specialists to bike shop owners.

“Early exposure is one of the main ways that we become accustomed to the natural world and interested in working for it,” Navas said.

The Outdoor Equity Fund, established in statute alongside the outdoor recreation office, was intended to keep growing an industry that has become an increasingly important part of New Mexico’s economy. A recent study conducted by the Montana-based firm Headwaters Economics determined outdoor recreation contributes $2.3 billion annually to New Mexico’s economy and supports 33,500 jobs.

The grant places a particular focus on helping New Mexicans with less access to outdoor recreation. Gabe Vasquez, a Las Cruces city councilor and one of the people who reviewed the grant applications, said there are a number of barriers preventing children in poverty from accessing the wilderness, ranging from lack of transportation to the cost of gear. In New Mexico, which routinely ranks among the worst states when it comes to child poverty, Vasquez said these barriers prevent some kids from entering an industry they might find rewarding.

“By teaching these youth early on about the natural resources that exist in this state … it will help them change their mindset about what’s possible for their future and what’s possible for New Mexico,” Vasquez said.

The fund distributed $261,863 to 25 organizations in its inaugural year for projects that are expected to bring about 2,700 kids outside over the following year. Navas said the program was funded primarily through state appropriations, but organizations like REI, The North Face and the National Parks Conservation Association also contributed grant funding.

Organizations that received funding range from the Hermit’s Peak Wilderness Alliance, a Las Vegas-based organization that received $14,543 to help engage youth through a revitalization project on the Gallinas River, to the city of Sunland Park, which received $5,500 to host weekend events at local parks.

When evaluating the 84 applications the organization received, Vasquez said he focused on making sure the funds were distributed equitably across the state, with urban, rural and tribal areas each benefitting. Another priority was funding unique projects that fit the needs of their specific community.

“It’s about youth learning about their community, where they came from, why it’s really important to take care of these special places,” Vasquez said.

Navas added that she expects the program to keep growing in future years. She said if the organization had been able to fully fund the grant applications it received, it would have been able to get 36,000 young New Mexicans into the outdoors. “I think that first cycle proves that there’s a real need and desire for such a fund,” Navas said.

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