Why the next generation needs public lands

Experiences in the wilderness are crucial for troubled youth.

 

Ernie Atencio is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is New Mexico program manager for the National Parks and Conservation Association.


As I watch at-risk urban kids from Salt Lake City scrambling up slickrock canyons to see ancient Puebloan ruins, I see their faces come alive as they absorb their spectacular surroundings. Attitudes chill, eyes and smiles get wider. Something stirs within them.

These high school and college-age youth are spending a weekend at Hovenweep National Monument in southeastern Utah through a program called YouthWorks in the Parks, which hopes to make them advocates for public lands. Later in the weekend, they will rappel into a canyon on the southern fringe of Bears Ears National Monument. There, they will have to work together and contort their bodies in creative ways to squeeze through a sinuous slot canyon.

Many of these young people have never set foot in a national park; some have never camped out and seen the night sky. This ancestral homeland of Pueblo peoples with its strange and twisted landscape is new and wild to them. Until they saw it, it was utterly unimaginable to them. Now they are seeing the world through new eyes, and what they see is bigger than anything they had thought.

I know these kids. I used to be one of them.

Kids visit Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah.

Before finding my way back to my northern New Mexico roots, I grew up mostly in inner-city Denver. I learned the tricks of the street, got involved in some risky and illegal activities, spent time in juvy, and dropped out of high school. When I finally forced myself back into the classroom, I just wanted a high school diploma.

An Outward Bound “hoods-in-the-woods” course changed all that. Three weeks of backpacking and mountaineering blew both my mind and my horizons wide open. Not long after, I was leading Outward Bound trips, working as a national park ranger, and teaching environmental education programs. Eventually, I got into conservation work, and along the way earned several more “terminal degrees.” 

During my recent weekend with young people from Utah, I saw the horizon shift in similar ways for these youngsters. There must be a direct correlation between experiencing the physical horizons of canyon country and finding greater vision and ambitions in life. I’ve seen it enough times to know it’s true.

These kids are already on a good path. YouthWorks caught them before they slipped through the deep cracks in our educational and legal systems. They come into the backcountry confident and ambitious.    

The group was fascinated to learn about modern-day cultural connections to this landscape. You could hear a pin drop as they listened to a Navajo guide explain his people’s relationship to the Puebloan sites. He tells them that he ritually prepares himself before he visits one in order to honor its spirit. The kids marvel at how the ancestral Pueblo people and Indian people still live in tune with the natural world and the seasons. There is even some anger that they have not learned anything about this in school.

One participant is amazed that these ancient ruins still stand, and that rangers and archaeologists work to protect them and explain them to the public. They are surprised to learn that this protected public land is their land. This idea of the commons is new but very welcome to young people who come from families whose own horizon does not usually include home ownership. And yet they learn on this weekend that they own part of a vast public estate.

The new Bears Ears National Monument, Hovenweep and our other tremendous gifts of public land hold all kinds of untapped opportunities, from broadening our experience of history and the outdoors to inspiring young people and helping them find their place in the world. As the weekend draws to a close, these young people may become the next generation of park advocates or find other ways to make the world a better place. But I realize that Youthworks in the Parks can only work if there are intact places to learn about and explore.

Beaming after his first trip to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, one young man says, “Now, there’s this feeling that goes through me, and I get this strong urge to go.” 

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...