New Mexico lawmakers focus on equity in the outdoors

A new fund would help low-income youth play in their public lands.


Editor’s note: In April of 2019, the Outdoor Equity Fund was signed into law. 

For decades, the outdoor recreation industry and environmental organizations have had to reckon with the fact that they have a diversity problem: their staffing is far below what could be considered racially or ethnically representative of modern American society. People of color account for nearly 40 percent of the population, but as of 2014, they held just 16 percent of positions at leading environmental organizations. A 2018 study conducted by the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit run by the Outdoor Industry Association, found that only one out of four participants in outdoor recreation activities were people of color.

There are myriad reasons for this — many of them rooted in history and racism — leading to unequal access to the outdoors. In parts of the West, where communities of color live within 50 miles of public lands, they visit them at much lower rates than their white counterparts. In the Southwestern Forest Service Region, for example, over 60 percent of nearby residents identify as people of color but make up just 19 percent of public-land visitors. 

Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks puts on programs to get young people out on public lands. The organization is one that could benefit from the Outdoor Equity Fund.
Courtesy of Brenda Gallegos

Meanwhile, the outdoor recreation industry has grown into a real economic force that is increasingly seen as a way to sustainably diversify rural economies. The industry accounted for $412 billion of economic activity nationwide in 2016, and New Mexico lawmakers are eager to bring some of those dollars to their constituents. But, they argue, any benefits should go beyond economic growth: The industry must provide more equitable access to the lands that belong to everyone. 

Their answer is the Outdoor Equity Fund: Part of a bill that would create a State Office of Outdoor Recreation in New Mexico, it would designate $100,000 a year in micro-grants to organizations and both local and tribal governments that help low-income youth get outside. The monies could be used to pay for things like camping gear and fishing poles, recreation fees and transportation costs — relatively small needs that have been real barriers for local nonprofits trying to open access to the outdoors.

“Working with underprivileged kids in land that they’ve never gotten to experience — whether (it’s) rafting the river, or fishing, or hiking in the Organ Mountains — is an impactful thing for our community,” said Gabe Vasquez, deputy state director of The Wilderness Society, a nonprofit that works to preserve land and is one of the main forces behind the Outdoor Equity Fund. “We have to seize on this opportunity. If the state is going to invest in creating this office of outdoor recreation, let’s make some demands.” 

During a girl’s camp put on by Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks the campers learned about geology, hiked and made art from their experiences.
Courtesy of Brenda Gallegos

A coalition of local and national organizations has expressed support for the Fund, including big players like Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) and the Outdoor Industry Association. The goal would be for these organizations to pledge donations as well, said Vasquez, who’s also invested in including more people of color in the conservation movement. If New Mexico is going to create an office that will amplify investment and profit for the outdoor industry, then “these foundations and retailers should also invest in New Mexico communities,” he said.

In the southern New Mexico district that State Rep. Angelica Rubio, D, represents (she also drafted the Outdoor Equity Fund bill alongside Vasquez), sits one of the nation’s newest national monuments: the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, designated in 2014. It’s been an economic boon for the region, bringing an estimated $1.25 million from visitors outside the county in 2017. Despite that fact, almost a third of households in Doña Ana County live in poverty, and local youth have a hard time visiting the monument, Rubio said. This fund could help by paying for things like van rentals or providing monies to area nonprofits. 

And in a state that ranks dead last for overall child well-being, the fund could provide other, less tangible benefits, too. According to a state health report, children in New Mexico are “at risk of having a shorter lifespan than their parents.” The report goes on to state that many low-income and minority children are losing out on their connection to nature and “missing key opportunities for physical activity, stress reduction, attention restoration, and healthy development.” Outdoor recreation, in other words, is not just an equity issue; it is a public health issue as well.

“We can (improve children’s well-being) through education and better health care,” Rubio said. “But if they can't even access the outdoors, I think that is where we further fail them.” 

Looking into the future, the Outdoor Equity Fund's investment in youth could also encourage much-needed diversity in staffing in outdoor and conservation organizations. Currently, less than 15 percent of students pursuing careers focused on natural resources are people of color. 

“The more that we can get our kids exposed to the outdoors and learning about the natural world,” Vasquez said, “the (better) we can build up that workforce to take care of our natural resources in the future.”  

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.  

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