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    The Outdoor Equity Fund Levels the Playing Field for New Mexico Youth

    July 26, 2019
    by Gabe Vasquez

    As one of the nation’s poorest states, New Mexico underperforms in many areas that determine the wellbeing of the children who call the Land of Enchantment their home.

    In fact, the state usually ranks last when it comes to economic, educational, and health outcomes for children, according to an annual report called the Kids Count Data Book published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

    These numbers are startling and directly correlate with the deep poverty that exist in the state’s urban, rural, and Native American communities. But while the state is poor, it is rich in one category: public lands and natural resources. Nearly 23 million acres of publicly owned national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands provide New Mexicans and visitors alike the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors by hiking, camping, fishing, skiing, boating, and more. State lands, state parks, city parks and urban refuges also add to the opportunities for outdoor recreation.

    The New Mexico Legislature was made keenly aware of the economic opportunity these public and state lands represent during the 2018 Legislative Session in the form of a legislative proposal to create the state’s first Division of Outdoor Recreation. But as the bill was being drafted, a pair of legislators (one of whom rode her bicycle more than 300 miles to the legislative session!) argued that the proposal should simultaneously give back to New Mexico’s youth by providing them the same opportunities for outdoor recreation that would soon be promoted to tourists. From this idea, the Outdoor Equity Fund was created.

    New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized tribes, dozens of federally-recognized colonias, several small urban hubs, and small rural cities and communities that dot the state, making it a geographic and logistic challenge to deliver quality educational and healthcare services to youth and their families the further you get away from city centers. That means that communities like Lordsburg, Mescalero, Lovington, and Zuni rely on their schools, local governments, and nonprofit organizations to deliver a whole host of services, including day care, after-school programming, summer programming, and other activities to keep their youth busy throughout the year.

    The Outdoor Equity Fund was crafted with this in mind. The enacting legislation created a public-private fund, administered by the Youth Conservation Corps., which will be annually distributed in the form of micro-grants to local governments, nonprofit organizations, and Native American communities, for the purpose of funding outdoor recreation and education programs in a variety of New Mexico communities and settings. What does the fund pay for? Almost anything, as long as it goes toward deferring the cost of developing or powering that outdoor recreation program.

    For example, an OEF grant applicant in Lordsburg could use a $10,000 microgrant to purchase tents, sleeping bags, camping chairs, food, gas (or even purchase a van), to run a summer outdoor recreation program in the neighboring Coronado National Forest. An applicant in Mescalero could use a microgrant to purchase the fishing gear and pay for the cost of a fishing guide to run a weeklong fishing skills program for Native youth at Grindstone Lake. Or an applicant in the City of Albuquerque could use the funds to buy aquatic monitoring equipment to enlist a group of youth to measure the water quality of the Rio Grande in the bosque that bisects the city.

    Because the program is so flexible, it reaches more youth, pays for a wider range of outdoor activities, and allows more applicants to be eligible to apply, with outdoor access to underserved youth at the core of its intent. To ensure that funds are distributed where they’re truly needed, at least 40 percent of the youth to be served by the applicant’s program must be considered low-income, measured by their enrollment in free or reduced lunch.

    While the OEF officially went live July 1, 2019, the work is still being done to ensure the fund is implemented successfully and follows the recommendations of the legislators and advocates who drafted the bill. The grantmaking will begin later this year after the rules for the program have been established by the Youth Conservation Corps. Governing board. The success of the OEF in its first year will be critical to securing additional private and public funding to increase the impact that it has across New Mexico communities and to share the model with other states who want to combine their efforts to develop their outdoor recreation economy with outdoor equity.

    When New Mexico youth get outside, they learn beyond what’s taught in the classroom. They learn about their culture, traditions, watersheds, conservation, the environment, forests, deserts, mountains, and so much more; along the way inspiring them to be wise stewards of our natural resources and exposing them to careers working in the outdoors.

    More than 50 state and national organizations came together to support this effort, recognizing that outdoor equity is critical to the health and wellbeing of the next generation of children living in this country. It’s now up to us to make sure the outdoors can be a place for learning, healing, and recreation for more of New Mexico’s children.
     

    Gabe Vasquez is the founder of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project and a city councilor in the City of Las Cruces, New Mexico. For more information, visit www.nuestra-tierra.org

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