Guest commentary: Proposed Outdoor Equity Grant Program needs our support to get underserved families into wilderness
Last weekend, my wife and I took our two kids on a three-day raft trip with four other families on the Colorado River. It’s tough to think of an activity that makes me happier than spending time on public lands and waters with the people I love, and I feel fortunate to pass onto my kids the experience and opportunity of building a connection to these special places.
But recreating in the outdoors — which requires financial means, equipment, time, and experience — is an opportunity not every child has. Amid the amazing public lands in Colorado, it can be all too easy to forget the privilege my family and I have to enjoy them.
Despite the fact that Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy is booming, we are behind in recognizing and removing the barriers that prevent many from accessing nature and public lands. In “An Earth Day Report Card for Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley,” I wrote that “the environmental community has systematically failed to engage and ignored the concerns of people of color and low-income communities.” The lack of equitable access to nature, public lands and outdoor recreation is a clear example of this issue.
A bill currently in the Colorado statehouse begins to address this inequality and takes steps to correct it.
HB21-1318 would create an Outdoor Equity Grant Program, funded by the Colorado Lottery, that would award grants that deliver outdoor and environmental education and programming to historically underserved youth and their families. An independent board will manage the program and disburse funds quickly and accessibly.
I’ve seen the importance of this work firsthand at the organization I work for: Wilderness Workshop. Despite being a 50-year-old community-based organization, we failed to include the Latinx community in our work to protect public lands. Recognizing this, three years ago, we started the Defiende Nuestra Tierra (Defend Our Land) program, to intentionally engage Latinx people in our region.
We have seen an enthusiastic response and our Defiende programs focused on outdoor recreation and community advocacy are some of our most popular. Organizations such as Latinos Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, and Brave Trails (a LGBTQ Youth Summer Camp) have been leaders in expanding access to the outdoors, but we need broader, society-wide efforts to make up for the decades where the outdoors was primarily a white and privileged space.
Barriers to spending time on public lands and in nature are complex and engrained in our society; they are rooted in systematic racism and include interconnected issues such as generational wealth and public health disparities. This is why it’s so important that government at every level put significant money and resources toward resolving them.
While not a panacea, the Outdoor Equity Grant program is an important step toward reversing some of these barriers. I hope you’ll join me in calling on our legislators to pass this bill, and for Gov. Jared Polis to sign it into law immediately.
Will Roush is the executive director of the Carbondale-based nonprofit Wilderness Workshop. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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