Outdoor recreation is transformative for NM youths; Lawmakers can leverage federal funds to increase it » Albuquerque Journal

Whether a child is growing up in Downtown Albuquerque, the rugged hills north of Santa Fe, or the vast lands of the Zuni Pueblo, access to the outdoors and adventures in the natural world can be a transformative experience that shapes them for a lifetime. Far too often, children in lower-income communities, Indigenous youths and children of color face structural barriers to accessing the outdoors. That’s what the creation of the Outdoor Equity Fund a couple of years back sought to alleviate.

Now there is a chance to double down on the commitments made by our state leaders, including a one-time financial investment to get the program where it needs to be and meet the goals of getting youths across our state outside to enjoy the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health benefits. I know youths are depending on this investment, because I work with a program that has received funding from this initiative.

The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, or ZYEP, is utilizing outdoor recreation to help Zuni youths connect to their culture, learn important lessons about leadership, and take on pressing challenges their community is facing. The Zuni people have a long and successful history of water conservation, but issues surrounding water are becoming more and more prominent due to climate change. With support from Outdoor Equity Fund, ZYEP is taking a recreational focus to water to explore how climate change is affecting regional and state-wide water sources, how those consequences are leading to the loss of Zuni water access and what that means for Zuni culture and resource management. Outdoor recreation itself is a powerful connection point for these topics and it is often expensive to access, especially for rural tribal communities like Zuni.

The Outdoor Equity Fund is special because it’s investing in an area often overlooked. By doing so, they are increasing the access Zuni youths have to outdoor recreation that emphasizes one of their community’s most valuable assets, water. If the Outdoor Equity Fund can have this kind of positive impact in Zuni, then other tribes and pueblos across the state with similar strengths and barriers would benefit from this funding as well.

Final budget decisions will be made (as the Legislature winds down) and must include a commitment from representatives across the state to appropriate their own budget money to fund programs in the Division of Outdoor Recreation. I urge them to get behind creative efforts to add resources to the Outdoor Equity Fund and the Great New Mexico Trails Package.

The Great NM Trails Package would allow New Mexico to match federal dollars for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and create 150-plus miles of new trails in 23 counties. This money is crucial so rural communities can recover from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

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An investment in outdoor equity is more than just about getting people outdoors. An investment in outdoor equity is an investment in youths and families of all backgrounds across the state. The young people of today are the leaders of tomorrow, and programs like ZYEP are making it their mission to invest and develop their leaders as they step into roles that benefit their community now and in the future. The Outdoor Equity Fund partnership with ZYEP and other tribal groups will broaden youth platforms to advocate for the environment and its resources that directly affect their culture and their sovereignty.

Tahlia Natachu is youth development coordinator for the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project.