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Gwynne Ann Unruh is a former award winning reporter at the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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The National Governors Association (NGA) Outdoor Recreation Learning Network annual meeting on Feb. 7 and 8 gave governors’ staff members and outdoor recreation advisors from around the country the opportunity to present, discuss and network on how to advance outdoor recreation issues. Among the big topics of discussion: access to federal economic development grants, equal access to nature, how developing partnerships can help leverage limited public dollars, economic recovery from COVID-19 and using and promoting data to support public investments.

COVID-19 has highlighted the critical need for community access to the outdoors to maintain public health. Representative Angelica Rubio (District 35), co-author of the New Mexico Outdoor Equity Fund, spoke at the virtual meeting on improving equitable access and inclusion in the outdoors and the strategies and information relied upon to pass the legislation.

Initial funding received for the New Mexico Outdoor Fund was a yearly-recurring $100,000. “The hope is that, as successes from the project and what it’s doing for young people across the state, is documented, we will see more investment from legislators who see its value. Not only do we get young people outdoors, but it’s also making some transformational changes in issues related to poverty, education and all the things that are really important in the development of young people,” Rubio explained to participants at the virtual meeting.  

Over 80 different organizations applied for the grants from the fund, with 60-plus receiving between $2,000 to close to $10,000 to fund their projects. “I’m really excited about our first group of organizations receiving grants; and by this coming summer, we’ll be able to see some of those deliverables that everybody always likes to see,” Rubio said. These organizations included Dreamers, young people who were brought to the United States without citizenship, who were able to come up with a transformative project. Also included in the first group are Native communities with ideas on how they would bring their young people for outdoor healing ceremonies.

There was initial difficulty in using the term “equity,” however Rubio felt it was important that the word was used in the fund’s title. “I think at the time, which was a little over two years ago, the word ‘equity’ was still fairly new, especially to folks in the Legislature. Over the course of the last few years, it has certainly become a buzzword, and we hear it a lot in a number of different places that we work in. I wasn’t surprised about the pushback we received, because I think sometimes within our own progressive circles folks are worried about those types of issues in terms of how things will look,” Rubio said.  

There was a suggestion about changing the name to the Freedom Fund or something similar. “We pushed as hard as we could to make sure that the word ‘equity’ stayed in place, because we didn’t want to desensitize what’s really the honest truth of what we’re facing—especially in a state like New Mexico, where black and brown children are disproportionately impacted when it comes to issues related to education and poverty. As a minority majority state, we shouldn’t be afraid to tackle issues like this when they’re so important to the communities that are directly impacted. As a woman of color who is in the Legislature, I had a responsibility to my own community to make sure that we didn’t desensitize this issue,” Rubio explained.

Rubio said she’s excited about what they have been able to accomplish; however, the work doesn’t end there. “It’s not just about passing legislation. It’s actually making sure that the legislation we’ve passed has long-lasting effects and, as we move forward, so do the hearts and minds of the people who are representing our communities, so they will continue to see the value in what we accomplished and what we continue to accomplish over the course of the next few years,” Rubio said.

What Rubio believes led many legislators to support the work, is that they resonated with the idea of building a new generation of stewards for New Mexico’s land. “We really want as many children as possible, not only to learn from and experience the outdoors, but have that experience evolve into their adult life. When we’re talking about creating an economy around outdoor recreation, I’m also thinking about it in ways that it’s not only going to be sustainable, but that it’s also going to be very cognizant of the fact that the land that we’re on is with Native American communities that have faced a lot of displacement over the history of our state. I think it’s critical that some recognition around this happens when talking about stewardship.

The goal for Rubio and others this legislative session, as New Mexico is trying to legalize recreational cannabis, is to secure a percentage of the revenues from that potential income to fund the Outdoor Equity Fund. “Our goal is to eventually have 30,000 children with access to the outdoors in ways that they don’t right now—and not just necessarily the way that some of us think of in terms of experiencing and exploring the wilderness. We have a lot of young people in the city of Las Cruces who have never experienced some of our own incredible outdoor spaces like the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. It’s really about how do we bring some of these opportunities to young people who have such amazing spaces just in their backyard.” she said.

“Even with the impact of COVID-19 in New Mexico we’re so lucky, I can jump on my bike and, within a couple minutes, be on a ditch bank, ride 20 miles and not have to worry about seeing a ton of people out without masks on. I’m really excited that when we get past COVID-19—and we’re able to go back to normal when it comes to being outside, and we’re able to congregate with more people,—the vision that we have for the outdoor equity fund will expand and be a lot more. The outdoors is really where we find that peace that many of us are needing at these moments.” Rubio shared.

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