Legislators can help get our kids outside

Photo: David Soules.

By Simon Sotelo III
Las Cruces Sun-News | February 21, 2021

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that New Mexicans want to be outside — for recreation, mental health and so much more.

Following a year when children have overwhelmingly been stuck inside on screens, lawmakers have an exciting opportunity to get more kids outside. To do that, they must support a $1 million special appropriation request to fund the Outdoor Equity Fund — a program created by New Mexicans for New Mexicans to ensure more equitable access to our public lands.

Last year, we made history by becoming the first state to launch such a program. But because funding was limited to $100,000, only 26 grants were distributed, even though more than 100 cities, counties, tribes, and organizations submitted creative ideas.

The power is now in state legislators’ hands to fully fund the program at $1 million, which would introduce more than 38,000 youth to things we all know and love in New Mexico — hunting, fishing, gardening, hiking and just plain exploring.

A quick look at some of the recent grantees offers a glimpse into the potential of this great program:

In Doña Ana County, the Families & Youth, Inc.’s Outdoor Legacy Project will help families overcome barriers to activities like hiking and camping by renting out equipment and helping with clothing, food and transportation.

The City of Sunland Park plans to use funding to host weekend events at local parks to help get youth grades 3-6 out into their environment and do hands-on learning with a focus on ecology, flora, fauna, etc.

In Grant County, the Kids in Need of Supportive Services (KISS) organization will offer youth the ability to visit local parks and lakes while learning how to cope with issues like anger management, motivation, communication, drug awareness, domestic violence, and self-esteem.

As an advisory board member of the Youth Mural Project, I’m personally proud of an upcoming partnership with the Western New Mexico University Outdoor Program that will provide Grant and Luna County youth an opportunity to create and install a public art mural at the City of Rocks State Park.

In the Gallup area, the National Indian Youth Leadership Project’s Project Venture will use traditional American Indian models of learning to promote community service through culture and outdoor experiential learning. There’s also Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, which uses water-based outdoor recreation as a vehicle for educating Zuni youth about the impacts the Zuni River has on its land, people, and religion.

Two great nonprofits are ready to help youth learn more about a time-honored tradition in New Mexico: fishing. Projects with the local nonprofit Fly Fish and the Friends of the Pecos National Park will give rural middle and high school age children the opportunity to learn how to fly fish while fostering stewardship and respect for our lands, wildlife and waters and understanding more about New Mexico trout.

I could go on — and I want to, because these programs so exciting.

Just think of the opportunities we can unleash in all four corners of the state if we support the Outdoor Recreation Division’s request to fully fund this great program.

Local communities are eager to get more youth outside. They have done their part by planning such wonderful opportunities. Now it’s up to lawmakers to help make these projects come to life.

We fully recognize the challenges that our legislative leaders like Sen. Muñoz and Rep. Patty Lundstrom have right now as they work to produce a responsible budget that supports our basic needs and helps New Mexico emerge from the pandemic healthier and stronger.

And we know that all legislators want to do everything they can to support New Mexico’s children.

This session, fully funding the Outdoor Equity Fund is a simple and easy way to do just that.

Simon Sotelo III is the Latino outreach coordinator for New Mexico Wild, an independent, statewide, homegrown, grassroots conservation organization dedicated to the protection, restoration and continued respect of New Mexico’s wildlands and Wilderness areas.

This guest column originally appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News.

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