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Initiative helps youth enjoy public lands

LAS CRUCES – After a sunset hike in the picturesque Organ Mountains, a dozen kids from the Boys & Girls Club were asked to describe their experience in a single word.

They wrote on white and pink index cards: cool, enchanting, mysterious, beautiful, adventurous.

The hike belonged to a new initiative launched this month in southern New Mexico called Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a partnership among three nonprofit organizations to bring Hispanic and underserved youth into the outdoors.

In a single word written on index cards, Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project members described their hiking experience in the Organ Mountains.

In a single word written on index cards, Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project members described their hiking experience in the Organ Mountains.

“Nationally, people of color are really underrepresented not just in conservation advocacy work but in their visitation to public lands,” said Gabe Vasquez, New Mexico Wildlife Federation coordinator in Las Cruces. “The mission is to reconnect Hispanic families with meaningful outdoor experiences. By connecting them, they are more likely to become caretakers, stewards and conservation leaders.”

Just one in five visitors to national parks self-identified as a minority – Hispanic, African-American or Asian-American – according to the latest demographic survey of visitors by the National Park Service in 2009. The survey has sparked efforts by the agency and nonprofits to boost diversity in parks visitation.

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Latino Outdoors and Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks aim to take the kids – as well as their families – on excursions that may include hiking, fishing, bird watching and kayaking.

“A fundamental of Boys & Girls Clubs is to give kids opportunities they may not get elsewhere,” said Ashley Echavarria, chief executive of the Las Cruces club. “If we can find ways to help our kids enjoy the outdoors and have fun, that is a win-win.”

Just outside Las Cruces, the newly anointed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument encompasses nearly half a million acres of Chihuahuan desert, including rugged peaks and historical and cultural sites. About an hour north of the city is Caballo Lake.

Vasquez led the first hike of middle and high school students as part of the “Nuestra Tierra,” or “Our Land,” project through Baylor Canyon Pass just east of the city.

“Our curriculum, we look at our landscapes through a cultural lens,” he said. “We talked about the Jornada Mogollon culture. I think the kids were really surprised to hear that the prehistoric people who lived here were on the land for 1,300 or 1,400 years. When I think about the culture and the history of these places, they really tie back to me as a mestizo. This is our history. Nobody should be locked out of it.”

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