The Story of Juan Palma: How a Mexican Migrant Boy Became a BLM State Director (Part II)

Lessons Learned While Managing Public Lands

As I wrote about in Part I of my life’s story, my experiences have connected me with nature and developed a deep sense within me to be a wise steward of our natural resources and our natural wonders.  This work and the natural environment have also shaped my family.  My three boys are, and have always been, active users of our nation’s public lands, as they camp, hunt, and enjoy the outdoors now with their own children.  All three of my sons now actively play a role in the future of our public lands as employees of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  They are, and will continue to be, active participants in creating and implementing policies that promote a balance between development and preservation, as they touch and feel the lands with their own hands and feet.  I hope that their children and the generations that come from them will continue with that tradition.

the three palma boys (left to right: jacob, jonathan, and joseph) in front of their grandparents home in John Day, Oregon.

the three palma boys (left to right: jacob, jonathan, and joseph) in front of their grandparents home in John Day, Oregon.

Even as many now grasp the concept of the importance of wise and sustainable management of public lands, there are many others that still need to be educated. Throughout my 30-year career with the Forest Service and the BLM, I was saddened because many of my fellow Latinos were not as active in voicing their ideas and opinions regarding the management of public lands.  In fact, I would say that Latinos were less active participants in many outdoor activities like camping, hunting, hiking, and simply enjoying the outdoors.  My passion for these public lands was nurtured by spending time with my young family in the outdoors recreating, fishing, and hunting.  My wish is that others find that same joy and recognize that these lands belong to them as well.

juan palma hiking the toiyabe range in central nevada while an employee of the the toiyabe national forest service.

juan palma hiking the toiyabe range in central nevada while an employee of the the toiyabe national forest service.

So why is their presence so lacking? Using myself as an example – I grew up in the Yakima Valley in Washington. During my formative years (ages 14 to 20), all I saw was mountains – Mount Rainier and Mount Adams and the Cascade Range – I gazed at them every day. But I had no idea that they were public lands, and that they were lands open to me. Why? For many reasons, I’m sure.  But a big one is that the first priority of life is food and water and shelter.  Many Latino families are working so hard to fulfill those basic necessities, they may not have the time or headspace to consider the land or recreation or connecting with nature. However, in my opinion, spending time with family is also a basic necessity, and public lands are a great venue, as they are open to everyone and they provide a place for families to be together doing activities that are low-cost.

There’s also a cultural divide for those that come from countries like Mexico and Central and South America in regards to understanding public land in the U.S. That is, in those countries there aren’t “public lands” there like we have here in America. This, in itself, is a completely foreign idea. Without knowing it exists, we can’t experience it, and we can’t pass it on to our kids. Many Latinos simply don’t know.

This is where an organization like HECHO comes in. Letting Latinos know about public lands, sharing information about how these lands are managed, and that agencies are our allies, and, most of all, letting them know that they have a voice.

The people who came to my office during my time with the Forest Service and the BLM were almost always business people, local and state governments, or environmental groups.  I don’t recall in my entire career any Latino group coming to me with a project proposal that might benefit their own community. Perhaps, like I was 30 years ago, they are unaware that this incredible resource belongs to them too.

Why I joined HECHO

Juan and Susan Palma hiking the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area with five of their grandchildren. BLM Saint George Field Office, Utah.

Juan and Susan Palma hiking the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area with five of their grandchildren. BLM Saint George Field Office, Utah.

There is a need for more Latino families and individuals to participate in managing and becoming active users of our public lands. Soon, there will be 100 million Latinos in the US – mostly in the west – and we’ve got to introduce them to the BLM and Forest Service and inspire them to have a more intimate relationship with their natural surroundings. If they go out and hike and bike and raft the rivers and look at the magnificent scenery, they will not only re-connect with this heritage, they’ll also be more likely to become advocates for their public lands. We need a broader constituency of advocates – broader than just the business community or the environmental community – to protect these lands.  With HECHO and other partner organizations, we can accomplish this together.

Organizations like HECHO help connect positive personal and family experiences in the outdoors to participating in the conservation of our federal public lands. We cannot expect people to help care for the land if they don’t care about the land. And if we as a society do not learn to be wise stewards of the natural world through intimate experiences on public lands, we (and our children) will suffer the consequences. 

As my friend Brian Wallace, former chair of the Washoe Tribe has said, "The health of the land and the health of the people are tied together, and what happens to the land also happens to the people. When the land suffers so too do the people."

My experiences throughout my career working with the public and with my family have led me to this point with HECHO.  Together with HECHO I hope to bring a voice to Latino people in the policy decision-making process of federal agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.  And also, to connect Latino families and their children to our public lands where they can play, learn, work, and serve.  I hope you will come along with us.