By Steve Peru
I was born in Morenci, Arizona, a small copper mining community of less than 5,000, near the beautiful White Mountains. When I was in 5th or 6th grade, my parents and a few uncles got together and said we should go camping. While several uncles were hunters, this was the first time an “all family” gathering had been planned, even though our extended family routinely came together for birthdays and holidays. That began an annual family event that went on for over 20 years. My family and the families of my 6 or 7 aunts and uncles (collectively over 60 people when adding cousins) would head to the White Mountains region and camp together for a week or two. It was the big event of the year for our families and everyone looked forward to it. We fished, hiked, sat around the campfire telling ghost stories, and ate a lot of good food.
One of my uncles was in charge of the annual fish fry -- everything we caught was for that feast. In that area, most of the fishing was by the side of a stream and my most vivid memories are when people caught their first fish ever. I remember seeing my mother catch her first fish and being totally excited – the fish was just hanging at the end of the rod and she didn’t know what to do with it. She was about to learn. It was a rule – whoever caught a fish was responsible for cleaning it and everyone learned to do it properly and respectfully. That was an extra part of that experience of being outdoors. The fishing provided us the opportunity to develop our own relationship with nature and all that went with it.
Over the years, as my cousins and I grew up, we all developed an appreciation of being outdoors that carries us throughout our lives today. While my Dad and several uncles are no longer with us, as adults, we continue the camping and our children grew up experiencing it, as well. This allowed our children to experience what we did and look back with good memories of being a pretty large extended family outdoors in the woods. The experience made us a closer, extended family. My cousins all have their own children – another extension of an already extended family – and are now creating their own traditions and memories, which all began with a simple of idea of vacationing in the beautiful outdoors. I know now, too, that it’s not just my family that does this. It’s part of Latino culture – we very much appreciate large family gatherings, respect the land, and enjoy the great outdoors – and good food, too!
Beyond the multi-generational family experience and learning to respect and appreciate being outdoors, I think we also developed an appreciation for conservation without really realizing it. I think everyone in my family that had an experience camping and fishing and hunting are advocates of that benefit without knowing it from the textbook definition of “conservation.” Who wouldn’t respect the thing that brought so many fond memories?
For me, having the background and the family experience helped me in my professional years in the county when we had a variety of conversations with land managers such as the Forest Service and BLM and various conservation trust organizations on the issue of conservation and recreation and its importance in our community. It definitely helped to have an understanding of what it means to be a user of public lands and the importance of these lands have our daily lives.
A few summers ago, the forests were really, really dry in northern Arizona and the forest had to close. That had a huge impact on many in our community. Many asked, what are we going to do over the summer? It had to be done for forest health and protection, but it was interesting seeing the reaction – “what do you mean you’re gonna close, what are we gonna do?” It definitely helped create an awareness and appreciation of forest health and conservation. The general public maybe doesn’t think of it in that way, but they look at the impact of not being able to access the forest as something that’s “taken away” from them. You don’t miss it until you don’t have it.
Enjoying the outdoors naturally makes you want to conserve these resources so we can all continue enjoying them. And you don’t need to be in northern or rural Arizona to experience that with more and more city parks now including urban fishing and urban lakes. What good way to bring increased awareness of being outdoors and enjoying our natural resources. And for Latinos especially, it is important to keep public lands in public hands since this is where so many rich family traditions were created.
Steve Peru is the President/CEO of United Way of Northern Arizona and the retired County Manager of Coconino County.