NM must invest in its outdoors and its young people - Albuquerque Journal

NM must invest in its outdoors and its young people

Young hikers take a trail in the Rio Grande

Estrella Weikel, a student at Mesa Vista High School in Ojo Caliente, grew up gardening. To her, clean water and healthy land weren’t abstractions – they were visible necessities. Her family had gardens and crops at home, while her father worked in construction and sold firewood. That lifestyle, she says, where she spent so much time outdoors with dirt under her fingernails, “helped me learn that there are other things in life than sitting around and not caring about the environment. It helps me in my life because I think of ways to make our environment and lifestyle better.”

That interest led Estrella to River Source, a New Mexico group dedicated to catalyzing stewardship in water conservation. Last year, River Source was awarded a $15,000 Outdoor Equity Fund grant from the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division to continue the work with Mesa Vista and four other New Mexico schools. As part of the curriculum, River Source invited “community elders who have lived, farmed and worked the land to participate and share their lived experiences and wisdom on what the water means to all life and why we must preserve it.”

Last fall, Estrella, along with Alyssa Banuelos, an Albuquerque student who went backpacking with the N.M. Dream Team, another Outdoor Equity Fund-supported group that fights for the uplifting of immigrant, queer and communities of color, spoke about their outdoor experiences at the virtual Outdoor Economics Conference. Both young women shared how the outdoors has inspired them, even in their future career choices. “I’ve always been really observant on what we need to keep our food, our crops, our air sources healthy,” Estrella says, “so I started looking into hydrology.” Alyssa, who went backpacking for the first time through N.M. Dream Team, says she now wants to do what her guides did for her: reach out to youth and get them outside, no matter their level of experience.

Both River Source and N.M. Dream Team are providing inspiration to these young women to stay in New Mexico and pursue careers here. That’s economic development. It’s also conservation, stewardship and education. And that is the mission of the Outdoor Equity Fund: To transform the face of the outdoors and ensure equitable access to public lands, especially for young people of color.

The work New Mexico started is now going national. Earlier this month, a powerful group of Black, Indigenous and outdoor recreation and environmental leaders of color released Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E, an initiative to increase access to public lands for underserved youth.

For two years, New Mexico has led the way, guaranteeing that the transformational power of outdoor experiences reach young people like Estrella and Alyssa. This winter, the state has an opportunity to continue to set an example for the rest of the country thanks to a special appropriation request backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The governor is recommending $1 million for the Outdoor Equity Fund for the next fiscal year, a proposal that will now head to lawmakers during the 2021 legislative session.

This investment would enable the Outdoor Recreation Division to meet the demand it saw for the Outdoor Equity Fund in 2020. Almost 100 tribes, pueblos, organizations, and municipal and county governments applied in the inaugural grant cycle, but due to limited funding, the office could only award 26 grants, including to River Source and N.M. Dream Team. Funded at $1 million, the Outdoor Equity Fund would invest in programming throughout New Mexico to get more than 38,000 young people fishing, hunting, irrigating, hiking, trail building, biking and more by summer 2022.

The COVID-19 emergency has emphasized the urgency of investing in our young people and our outdoors. This special appropriation would do both, with a long-term goal of transforming the outdoor industry, nurturing the next generation of land and water stewards, and building a greener economy from the ground up. If you also believe in those goals, call your local lawmakers and say you support the Outdoor Recreation Division’s call to invest in the Outdoor Equity Fund.

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