For many New Mexican children, deserts, forests and mountains are just outside their back door.
The Every Kid Outdoors program encourages students to explore those public lands.
The program gives fourth graders nationwide a free pass to access any day-use sites managed by a federal agency.
The annual pass typically costs $80. Families get free entry into sites overseen by the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers and more.
Julie Anne Overton, spokesperson for the Santa Fe National Forest office, said the program teaches students while they are still receptive to exploring nature.
“Chances are if you can reach a kid by the age of 11, you can make them a lifelong visitor and devotee to their public lands both in terms of recreation and stewardship,” Overton said.
The program also includes fifth graders this year. Restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 prevented many of last year’s fourth graders from taking full advantage of their passes.
Elena Kayak, a Sustainability Program specialist with Santa Fe Public Schools, said the program makes the outdoors accessible for New Mexican families.
The district has distributed passes to 1,000 fourth graders each year for the past three years.
“We’re really growing another generation of students who want to protect and steward their national parks, and introducing them to these sites that they might not visit if they didn’t have the card,” Kayak said.
In a typical year, Kayak hosts assemblies with Santa Fe fourth graders to kick off the program. Sometimes Smokey Bear makes an appearance, and students take a conservation pledge to protect public lands.
This year, the presentations have gone virtual. The district is encouraging students to stay close to home and practice social distancing when visiting the outdoors.
But the program remains a “pot of gold” for environmental educators, Kayak said.
“We talk about the animals that live there, and about soil and water health,” Kayak said. “We teach about the history of these sites, the Native Americans who raised families there, about Aldo Leopold and environmental stewardship, and wildfire prevention.”
The program also gives the students a free Christmas tree permit.
“Most of the forest is not fee driven,” Overton said. “Anybody can get out and take a hike, or go sledding, or just drive and look at the leaves in the fall. We hope that this program encourages the kids and their families to take advantage of what’s right here.”
Students can visit everykidoutdoors.gov to access their pass. The website is also available in Spanish.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.