Q&A: HECHO Advisory Board Member Lenore Loroña Stuart

HECHO Board Member Lenore Loroña Stuart has served as a member of the Yuma County Board of Supervisors in Arizona for 15 years; and serves as the Chairwoman of the National Association of Counties Immigration Task Force.  She was formerly the President of the County Supervisors Association of Arizona. During her tenure she helped shape public policy and represented all of the counties and county supervisors in the state. Among her many contributions to preserving public outdoor recreation areas, Lenore was a member of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area Board, under the Direction of Charles Flynn, that helped transform an unusable wetlands area into a beautifully restored and easily accessible riverfront.  HECHO spoke with her recently about her pride in this new area along the Colorado River, and why it’s important to her that Hispanic families continue to enjoy the outdoors.  

HECHO:  Can you please talk about the amazing restoration project you worked on alongside the riverfront?

Lenore Stuart:  We’re located along the Colorado River, but for years it was undeveloped for recreational use.  It was all vegetation.  What’s happened is that we formed a heritage park recreation area that’s now nationally known. We developed it as a swimming and boating area. We call it “Yuma Beach,” even though we’re in the desert.  The Colorado River is a place where everybody loves to come because it’s cool, and it’s hot here in Yuma for at least six months of the year. Families can go free of charge – they go swimming, plan parties, have meetings for military events, reunions, and more.  There’s something going on all the time.   In connection with that, as you come down to the east and west wetlands access point along the river bank, you will find that we just opened an area for bicycling, hiking and jogging.  Families are using the space primarily because it’s such an easy point of entertainment.  Across the river is the Quechan Nation.  They are joining with us and beginning to do projects to enhance that whole area.  

 Yuma Crossing National heritage area,  Photo: NPS

Yuma Crossing National heritage area,  Photo: NPS

HECHO:  I know there has been some discussion about the possibility of transferring federal lands to the states in Arizona, and in particular in Yuma County. How do you feel about that?

LS:  In June of 2014 Yuma County completed a study on public lands in the area, and we have been discussing whether those lands should be given to the county.  The study results did not provide a defined outcome for what we should do.  I’m not in favor of the transfer of public lands from the federal government, because I’m concerned about the type of public lands that will be available, and who will take care of them. If you transfer them, these lands are not guaranteed to stay public. That’s a grave concern for all of us.  Some counties just want the land because they think they can increase their revenues, but this would take an extremely long time -- years and years.  Aside from that, the main concern is that the land may be transferred to the state, rather than to the counties directly.  I don’t think people realize the full extent of the expenses that would be involved either, such as fire, police, regular maintenance of infrastructure, and more.

HECHO: What do you hope to accomplish along with HECHO?

LS: The use of public lands by Hispanics and how they’re being used has always been of interest to me.

Yuma’s population is at least 62% Hispanic.  We have a lot of low-income families and they love the recreation area.  My office is close to that area so I like to go up and park my car and sit overlooking the beach and see how people use it. They would not otherwise have access to this kind of recreation – it’s very convenient for people. People love being on the river edge. And part of it is an historic area.  This area was the only place where you could cross the Colorado River to California.  There used to be ferries going back and forth, until eventually the Ocean to Ocean Bridge was built.  It was an important transportation hub for shipping goods back and forth, especially during the Gold Rush days when people were heading to California with hopes of becoming rich! I’m glad HECHO is supporting this type of access to our public lands for Hispanics and all Americans.

HECHO: Did you spend a lot of time outdoors growing up?

LS: I’m the 5th generation in my family from Yuma.  My great great-grandfather, Jose Maria Redondo, was one of the early pioneers – his property was 15 miles from here he had a huge hacienda.  He cultivated an area east of Yuma called the Rancho San Ysidro where he had one of the largest ranches, over 3000 acres.  This was land grant property.   Requirements changed later on how much property an individual could own.  Jose Maria Redondo was in the process of deeding land to individual family members so that they could retain their ranch, but he died before he finished.  As a result, the family was no longer able to maintain the land. But we used to go out to the area and have breakfast and bring all of our family together.  It’s just a family thing we would do to get together and remind people of our history and our Hispanic background.

HECHO: Is there an effort to get some of the Hispanic families that are enjoying the new outdoor recreation area by the Colorado River more involved in local conservation efforts? 

LS: There are a lot more than can be involved – they take it for granted right now.  There hasn’t been an effort to reach out and say, ‘look what you have and do you want to get involved in preserving it?’ We haven’t had occasion to have people come out and address concerns because they’ve seen what we’ve done and they are enjoying it. But I think if there was a campaign to take away those lands you would see that uproar. If I needed to I think I could rally Hispanic communities to weigh in on local issues.

HECHO: Are you personally enjoying the new recreation area that you helped create?

LS: Oh yes. I had my class reunion last year and we ended up with our celebration along the river. People were amazed at how much had been done.  We all grew up there.  We remember that one part of the wetlands was a dump. So you can imagine how the clean-out of that area and how it has been developed was very surprising to many of my friends. I was proud – they couldn’t believe it.