States Moving Forward to Strengthen Voices in Favor of Outdoor Recreation, Equity, and Youth Access

At the Utah State Capital supporting the Every Kid Outdoors Initiative

At the Utah State Capital supporting the Every Kid Outdoors Initiative

Lately there has been a surge of state-based Outdoor Recreation Offices, and important coinciding efforts—namely equity funding in New Mexico and the Utah Every Kid Outdoors Initiative, both supported by HECHO.

Earlier this month representatives from eight states signed off on a first-of-its kind agreement called the Confluence Accords, to unify and strengthen the outdoor industry voice on matters of public policy.

“The Confluence Accords will serve as a lasting cornerstone for our growing political voice and a road map for states on the journey to create their own outdoor recreation offices,” said Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, as quoted in SNEWS.

The accords outline best-practices in: conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training, economic development, and the intersection between public health and wellness and the outdoor industry. Signatories include representatives from Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Montana, Vermont, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.

As part of this ramping up, legislators in certain states are working to make sure that equity and access for kids are part of the equation.

New Mexico

Earlier this month New Mexico lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, along with newly-elected Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham, introduced a bill to establish the Office of Outdoor Recreation and Outdoor Equity Fund. The outdoor recreation industry generates $9.9 billion of spending in New Mexico, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. This new office is intended to increase tourism, jobs and consumer spending; while the equity fund will ensure that local low-income youth and their families have equal access the outdoors.

“In New Mexico, our culture and traditions are tied to the land and our natural resources, resources that we will be aggressively marketing to visitors and tourists as part of the creation of an Office of Outdoor Recreation,” said Rep. Angelica Rubio, one of the bill’s co-sponsors in a press release by the group Nuestra Tierra. “The Outdoor Equity Fund helps to level the playing field for our own communities and youth, so that they too, are able to enjoy these same experiences and resources.”

"Building outdoor equity directly into the proposed Office of Outdoor Recreation sends a strong message to our youth and underserved communities that they will not be left behind as the state invests in attracting visitors and generating new business opportunities from outdoor recreation,” said Gabe Vasquez, a Las Cruces City Councilor and founder of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project. “When we invest in our youth, we invest in the future of New Mexico. In this case, we're investing in the future caretakers of our air, land, water and public lands."

A coalition of more than 40 state and national organizations behind the effort, including HECHO, sent a letter to Gov. Lujan-Grisham last month, urging her support. “It’s no question that New Mexico’s public lands and waters are a pillar of our identity, culture, and economy,” said the letter. “If we do not simultaneously invest in our children and give them the opportunity to enjoy the same public lands and natural resources we are trying to promote to visitors, we will be once again failing our most precious resource, the youth of New Mexico.”

The Outdoor Equity Fund seeks a $100,000 state appropriation in addition to committed funding from private donors such as outdoor industry retailers, to provide micro-grants to local governments, Indian communities, and nonprofit organizations to help fund outdoor recreation and education programs that serve at least a 40-percent low-income youth population.

“I used to be Chair of the Board of the Valles Caldera National Preserve,” said HECHO Board Member Kent Salazar from New Mexico. “We rarely got children from the inner city up there – they could not afford to take a bus or get a van to see this spectacular place. People from private schools or tourists could easily afford to get their children up there. The equity fund will allow all of our children to see these types of places.”

Utah

In Utah there is also a new resolution being proposed, the Utah Every Kid Outdoor Initiative, which describes the physical, mental, developmental and behavioral health benefits of children spending time outdoors. The Initiative states specifically that “every child in Utah should have the opportunity to: observe nature and wildlife in Utah; explore Utah's parks, public lands, and wild places; gaze at the starry sky; splash in Utah's rivers, lakes, and streams; follow a trail; plant a seed; play on Utah's rocks and mountains; and be a steward and take care of Utah's outdoor places.”

“This Initiative is an effort to remind the legislature and others that not all children have the same opportunities which many of us take for granted,” said HECHO Advisory Board Member, Utah’s Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houk, who was invited to represent HECHO on the Advisory Committee for the Office of Outdoor Recreation in Utah.

Earlier this month she and Utah Rep. Mark Wheatley, another HECHO Advisory Board member, submitted a letter to the state Health and Human Services Committee in support of the Initiative. “Latinos from throughout the U.S., but particularly in the Southwest, celebrate centuries-old traditions grounded in responsibly experiencing the totality of what the outdoors provides to our families,” says the letter. “However, as the population of our community has become more and more concentrated in urban versus rural locations, experiences in the outdoors are often few, if non-existent for our Latino children. We appeal to your understanding of the importance of outdoor time for children in our community, especially those from marginalized communities who struggle disproportionately from indicators of health disparities such as chronic obesity, diabetes, and asthma.”

The Initiative passed unanimously out of the House and is on its way to the Senate.