NexGen Youth Panel at the state Outdoor Economic Conference
Nature Niños, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation's youth program, was developed in 2019 to connect New Mexico's youth to their public lands through education, exploration, and stewardship. The Outdoor Equity Fund (OEF) has allowed us all to reach more youth and encourage a shift away from technology towards outdoor confidence.
The Outdoor Economic Conference was held in Santa Fe last week. Nature Niños worked with Jeff Steinborn of the Outdoor Recreation Division to introduce the first-ever Next Gen Youth Panel. This panel included Penni Matkowski (14), Hayley Brown (15), Hunter Kachelmeier (17), and Levi Evarts (14) who had insightful observations about the state of outdoor recreation without being in the professional community.
Hunter identified transportation, infrastructure, and accessibility as three major barriers to the outdoors: "The mountains and big nature spaces can be really far away and gas is a high cost. Sometimes people don't have access to a car - without those things people can't visit places all over New Mexico…specifically for my family, my aunt is in a wheelchair and her family loves spending time outside but sometimes it's hard for them to access certain trailheads."
Levi offered a solution to create a "gear library" within public libraries. Levi explained, "You know how in libraries they have cooking supplies that you can check-out and then bring back? What if they did that with camping equipment? … We could have shelves for outdoor equipment for people to check-out and bring back but be able to use for free." Two of the youth panelists realize how important having nature as a regular part of their lives has been, with new passions and adventures to try.
Hayley lives in rural Folsom, New Mexico, and was raised to take care of her family farm. "Since I was a young kid my parents kept me involved in all the things needed to run our ranch. I was opening gates, feeding animals, filling troughs, and just being outside all the time. I know that not everyone has that and I know that I'm lucky to have grown up like that."
Penni is pursuing a career as a wildlife conservationist because of her outdoor experiences, and still has more to explore, saying "one thing that I really want to try is a backpacking trip! I think that would be a lot of fun to try with my family." Our youth are able to see the difficulties their fellow New Mexicans face when trying to recreate and appreciate the time they have had outside with the encouragement of their communities.
This is why the idea to covertly shift the Outdoor Recreation Division from Economic Development to Tourism has been such a shock. Instead of growing New Mexico's opportunities with the intent of local empowerment, the focus will instead be the encouragement of non-resident visitors to exploit the landscapes that actually make it "New Mexico True."
Tourism is a great source of income for our state - this is not an argument against the tourism economy - but New Mexico has been a national leader since the inception of the Division of Outdoor Recreation. We have spearheaded initiatives uplifting our state's beautiful and adventurous places and have supported at least 57,091 youth to explore their own state. Why would we want to take away our most notable achievement as a state when we have so many notable struggles?
Popular advice states, "Focus needs to be on supporting oneself before one can properly support others." In this case, we need to focus on our residents first - our social-emotional health from COVID isolation, our accessibility to safe green spaces and infrastructure access, the growth of economic opportunities within our own communities, and the mindful focus of outdoor development to center and enhance the many cultural perspectives and histories of our people. Because when we focus on our state and our residents, New Mexicans will thrive and others will notice, so tourism will follow.
Please let your state representatives and the governor know that you want to see the growth and prosperity of New Mexico by keeping the Outdoor Recreation Division with the Department of Economic Development to keep its focus on the growth of New Mexico residents and the sustainable development of our outdoor economy.