HECHO Advisory Board Member Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck is the Minority Whip in Utah’s State House of Representatives. In a recent interview, she discussed where she learned to value stewardship of the land, and why she expects a greater diversity of voices to emerge in conservation politics.
HECHO: Did you spend much time outdoors when you were growing up?
Representative Chavez-Houck: I grew up on a produce farm in a community that is on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah. It has changed into a suburban area now, but when I was growing up it was a rural farm community. My family had a farm there and that was my playground, so that’s where my interest in the outdoors started. I spent a lot of time collecting caterpillars and watching them turn into butterflies and watching tadpoles turn into frogs. Also our family’s livelihood came from the land.
My dad was an immigrant from Michoacán, México. He always told us the land was the most important thing in our lives because it gave us our sustenance. My mom and dad and brothers and sister worked very hard – we grew sugar beets, tomatoes, and corn. After a while the urban sprawl moved closer to our community and my family continued to grow the produce, and then moved to alfalfa. My dad also worked for the local copper mine for 40 years at the same time he was running the farm. So I got my love of the land and appreciation of stewardship of natural resources predominantly from my father. We would sometimes enjoy the fish and the pheasants that my brothers would catch. My mother also got me involved in Girl Scouts and I used to enjoy camping with the girls in my troop.
What types of recreating do you do in the outdoors now?
RCH: My husband is an avid fly fisherman and loves to backpack and camp. We camped a lot when we were first dating and then when our children were born he was adamant about taking them camping. Luckily here in Utah we have so many national parks and other beautiful places close by. So we would spend weekends with our children beginning when they were infants going camping in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. We felt it was important for them to understand their natural world and learn that affinity for stewardship that we learned when we were young. Now our children are older, and I’ve moved into the “glamping” stage of my life. We have a Class C Winnebago I call “La Casita” and we have so much fun with that. We make it a point that every month when the weather is good we’ll travel somewhere. We’ve travelled extensively around the U.S. and I absolutely love RV camping and the places we’ve been able to see. It’s a new phase of experiencing the outdoors. My husband still loves to fly fish, and we also love to kayak.
Why do you feel HECHO’s work is important?
RCH: My dad really ingrained in us kids the importance of stewardship, and this was something I knew was a commitment. You reap from the land and you have to be good stewards for the land. At a young age I was aware of that importance. So I just am very excited that this legacy that I was taught from my father is manifesting in an organizational manner. I’m especially excited about encouraging young people to look at the natural sciences as careers. Here in Utah at the state legislature we put a lot of attention and resources into supporting the development of the STEM fields and encouraging young people to pursue these fields. For me it has focused on technology, but a lot of young people may be interested in ecology or biology, but they may not know what opportunities exist that connect with their interests. I’m very excited about trying to grow that as a strategy to help future generations be excellent stewards and advocates for our public lands. Also teaching young people the history of Latinos who have lived on these lands for many years, and that our community has a tradition of caring for the land. And then of course the advocacy in Washington and showing that there are diverse voices that feel strongly about protection of our natural resources.
Do you see lots of Latinos enjoying and appreciating the public lands in Utah?
RCH: I’m seeing an increasing number. I was talking to someone recently who was saying that it’s sad that some young people don’t even go to see the many canyons that are just a half hour away from where they live here in the Wasatch Front area of Utah. But this is changing. We used to go camping and everyone surrounding us in the campground was Anglo. There was no diversity. But now it is much more diverse, and I see entire Latino families – the grandma, grandpa, tíos and tías – all together enjoying the outdoors. I’m starting to see more Latino families at state parks, having picnics during the day. So they’re discovering this, and I’m very heartened about that. This is something that has changed over the decades since I’ve been camping in Utah.
How do you think this time outdoors can translate into more involvement in conservation efforts?
RCH: We need to find more opportunities to communicate that the land belongs to all of us and that there is a responsibility for people to advocate on behalf of preservation. We need to communicate within networks and venues in which people learn their news, like church meetings, soccer games, or on Spanish language radio stations. Or even among people who work at outdoor outfitting stores. It would be great if we could tell people when they’re going to purchase camping equipment the importance of water policy in the area that they’re going camping in, or of preserving the Antiquities Act, or letting them know that funding for certain sites is being threatened. We’re a very relational community – we like to listen to people that look like us and understand our experiences. We need to start having ambassadors to communicate why this is important. That’s what I’m really looking forward to – becoming an ambassador for public land stewardship. And encouraging people who support HECHO’s mission and vision to explore becoming ambassadors as well. I want us to show that we have as much right to advocate for the protection of public lands as anyone else because it’s about stewardship for future generations. Latino generally think about what we’re leaving behind and how we can make things better for our kids and grandkids. If we can define conservation within that frame, we can make a big difference.
From your perspective, why is the Antiquities Act important?
RCH: Especially here in the West the issues related to protections of public land are very heated regarding whether it’s a state’s responsibility or whether it’s something to be held in trust for the entire nation. I’m a strong believer in systemic protection of resources that belong to the whole community. We have a lot of very precious sites in our state. Sometimes you hear stories that sites have been vandalized that have delicate and sensitive archeological or paleological areas, and that just really breaks my heart because if its ruined, it’s lost forever. As a community and as a society we have to decide if it’s important to us that we have a strong policy like the Antiquities Act – that these sites are so important to us that we’re going to preserve them in this manner. I think it is the best way to approach it. Yes, we do some things at the state level that are effective, but something as broad as the Antiquities Act sets in place collective understanding that this is important to everyone. It’s also important for Latinos that we understand our history and the protection of stories of those who came before us. That message resonates very clearly with our community. We understand the importance of preserving history and protecting things that are sacred.
How important is it that a diverse range of stakeholders offer their viewpoint to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) when they are making decisions about oil and gas development on public lands?
RCH: Especially in the Moab area we have a strong tourist economy, and a lot of the people that drive the economy in terms of the recreation sector are our people. They are the ones that are the lifeblood of it all. So in terms of an economic outcome, they will benefit greatly by effective management of resources. But I don’t know whether a connection has been made. In general the people who weigh in are not diverse –it’s the usual suspects from across the spectrum of representatives from big environmental groups and public officials from those communities, as well as folks within the tourism and recreation industry. I haven’t taken a good look at who submits public comments, but I’m not aware of ethnically diverse voices, except for possibly some representing our Native American communities. This is something we definitely need to work on and something I’d be interested in assisting with.
What do you hope for the future of HECHO?
RCH: I would encourage folks who are interested in HECHO to connect. If they and their families enjoy the outdoors I encourage them to share that with us and get involved. We have to cast the net far and wide and inform people that we exist and why we’re here and that we’re looking forward to growing the movement.