Hispanics’ conservation efforts set to get a boost at Las Vegas conference

Pedro Lopez, the youngest elected leader in Arizona Visits HECHO at the NALEO conference in Las Vegas.

Pedro Lopez, the youngest elected leader in Arizona Visits HECHO at the NALEO conference in Las Vegas.

This Letter to the Editor originally appeared in The Las Vegas Sun on June 18, 2015.

This week the 32nd annual National Association of Elected Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) conference is taking place in Las Vegas. As the leading nonprofit that facilitates the full participation of Latinos in the American political process, NALEO’s conference provides a vital forum for discussing the key policy issues facing our communities. The agenda for this year includes sessions addressing perennial topics like health care, education, and immigration reform, but something equally as important to Latino voters is missing – conservation and environmental protection.

Many people don’t realize that environmental protection is ranked as a high concern among Latinos, according to recent polls. The latest groundbreaking study published by the Hispanic Access Foundation found that 80 percent of Latino voters polled believed that it was “extremely” or “very” important for the federal government to take action on climate change. A poll conducted last year by The New York Times, Stanford University and the nonpartisan environmental research group Resources for the Future found that Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to view global warming as a problem that affects them personally. Another national study of Hispanic voters conducted last year by Latino Decisions and the Natural Resources Defense Council, found more than 85 percent of Hispanics said air and water pollution were “very” or “extremely” important issues. Clearly, protecting and conserving our environment are issues where Latino policy makers could and should be playing leadership roles.

Some are already assuming that position in a year of notable “firsts” for Latino officials. For example, Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) became the first Latino Ranking Member on the House Natural Resources Committee (HNRC) joining nine other Latinos sitting on the HNRC with jurisdiction over our public lands and other natural resources. Congressman Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), who has been an active advocate for conservation and environmental protection, became the first Latino Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Plus, Rep. Grijalva, along with 18 cosponsors (now supported by an additional 81, 4 of them Latinos), have introduced a bill to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) – a program created by Congress in 1965 to protect and conserve natural areas and our cultural heritage, and to provide access to recreation for all Americans.

Nevada has received approximately $104 million from the LWCF over the past five decades, protecting some of the state’s most treasured places like the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The LWCF has also helped develop and conserve recreational spaces throughout the Las Vegas metropolis like Lorenzi Park, Sunset Park, Nature Park, Freedom Park, and the Floyd Lamb Park that’s literally been an oasis in the desert for thousands of years.

The LWCF expires in about 100 days, so there is no time like the present for Latinos to galvanize our elected officials and communities to ensure reauthorization. While the LWCF has certainly been beneficial to all people, the program has deeper meaning for Latinos. The LWCF isn’t simply about protecting land and water, it’s the conservation of historic places where Latino families have lived for generations. Latinos have a rich history woven into the fabric of our lands with centuries-old traditions of getting “out there” and hunting, fishing, camping, even gathering materials for healing and art. Additionally, LWCF provides access to and proximity to park spaces and the great outdoors for recreation opportunities that have a positive impact on Latino communities’ health and quality of life.

Latinos can lead on this issue and are poised to do so with strong federal representation and an electorate base that overwhelmingly supports conservation, not just as a smart policy, but as a moral imperative. Last year, the Sierra Club conducted a study in which 92 percent of the Latinos polled said that they had a moral responsibility to take care of “God’s creations on this earth.” It’s not just policy. It’s personal.

The LWCF conversation has begun in Latino communities and the NALEO conference affords leaders a unique opportunity to amplify that conversation. Despite its absence from the official agenda, several conservation groups will be in attendance (including the one I represent, Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and Outdoors [HECHO]) to continue the conversation about Latinos in conservation. The LWCF will be a top issue to discuss. Latinos want it. Latinos need it. And Latinos can be the leaders that ensure this vital program lives on as a tribute to the generations who lived on these lands before us and a legacy for the generations to come.

Camilla Simon is director of Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors.