Op-Ed: New Mexico’s State Office of Recreation Will Improve Outdoor Access for Kids

This Op-Ed represents the opinions of The Wilderness Society.

“Mister, what kind of cactus of is that?”

Jose, a 13-year-old from Anthony, New Mexico, points to a walking stick cholla, admiring its radiant purple flowers as he calls over a group of friends to admire the long, spiny cactus.

Last year, Jose was part of a group of youth from southern New Mexico who spent four days camping, fishing, hiking and exploring the Gila Wilderness.

The youth were from the Juvenile Community Corrections (JCC) program and were participating in a backcountry outing led by the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project. Together, they explored a world without traffic lights and pollution, ruled by the many invertebrates, birds, mammals, fish and fungi, and order of flora and fauna that give life to the Gila National Forest bordering Arizona.

It’s Jose’s curiosity that could keep him coming back, and even lead him to a life spent outdoors. But only if he’s provided that opportunity.

That’s why we’re supporting the establishment of an office of outdoor recreation and complementary Outdoor Equity Grant Program and Fund to improve outdoor access in New Mexico. Current legislation to do just that was recently signed by both the state House and Senate; now, we encourage Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to take swift action to sign the bill into law.

Teenagers stand near a body of water in the Gila Wilderness

Youth from the JCC program in the Gila Wilderness, where they spent four days camping, fishing, hiking and exploring. (Photo Courtesy: Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project)

New Mexico is a state like many in the West, rich in public lands, replete with picturesque mesas, thousand-foot gorges, cold-water streams, sandstone hills, sagebrush habitat, towering desert peaks, and national forests and grasslands. But it’s also very poor. Children in New Mexico rank at the bottom or near the bottom of most indicators for childhood well-being, including health, education, family and community, and economic well-being.

That’s why, last year, when a pair of lawmakers targeted the creation of a state office of outdoor recreation, community organizers and advocates from the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project teamed up with lawmakers to propose a simultaneous investment in getting low-income youth outdoors.

Democratic State Reps. Angelica Rubio and Javier Martínez joined with Nuestra Tierra and its partner organizations, Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, New Mexico Wildlife Federation and Latino Outdoors, to support the Outdoor Equity Grant Program and Fund legislation. Rubio helped craft the bill and Nuestra Tierra, joined by The Wilderness Society, helped build a state and national coalition to support it.

More than 60 organizations joined the effort to create the Outdoor Equity Grant Program and Fund, including social, environmental, indigenous and immigrant justice organizations, as well as youth service providers, health equity organizations, conservation organizations and retailers like REI.

The unified message to New Mexico legislators was clear: New Mexico communities want more than a return on investment from an office of outdoor recreation, they want equity and justice in who gets to enjoy its picturesque mesas, thousand-foot gorges, cold-water streams, desert peaks and national forests.

In a recent editorial, the Santa Fe New Mexican called the joint Outdoor Recreation Division and Outdoor Equity Grant Program and Fund legislation “our favorite part of the bill,” referring to it as something that should make all New Mexicans proud.

Tasked with expanding outdoor recreation in the state, the Outdoor Recreation Division will seek to draw recreation businesses to the state, help communities apply for recreation-related funding, and promote environmental stewardship, among other initiatives. 

The Outdoor Equity Grant Program and Fund will serve New Mexico’s nonprofits and local governments by helping to close gaps in funding for outdoor programs in the form of micro-grants. Although the public investment into the fund will only be $100,000 per year, the fund will be set up to receive contributions from foundations, private donors, retailers, corporations and anyone wishing to help get New Mexico’s kids outside.

The only stipulation for Outdoor Equity Grant Program and Fund applicants is that they must serve at least a 40-percent low-income population to apply for a micro-grant, with applicants who serve a higher percentage of low-income youth receiving a better opportunity for funding.

The activities the fund will pay for are countless—hiking, fishing, hunting, skiing, birdwatching, kayaking, canoeing, cultural immersion—all things that visitors to New Mexico will also enjoy, thanks to the creation of a new and very robust state office of recreation.

Thanks in part to the fund, we hope that kids like Jose will be the future stewards of our air, water, land and natural resources—and that, when it’s their turn, they’ll confidently be able to answer the question: “Hey, what kind of cactus is that?”