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Public lands may be open to all, but thanks to the cost of gear and difficulty of access, not everyone has the same opportunity to use them. This week marks the launch of a new initiative dedicated to bridging that gap at the root.
Launching on January 14, the Outdoor Fund for Underrepresented, Tribal, Urban, and Rural Equity, or Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. Initiative, plans to create a program to invest in organizations, states, and tribal nations that provide underserved youth across the country with meaningful outdoor recreational and educational opportunities. The funding will help these groups with necessary expenses such as transportation and gear.
Gabe Vasquez, a Las Cruces City Councilor and a leader of Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E., says this is the perfect time to launch the campaign, which is made up of leaders from organizations like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro. The initiative will kick off on January 14, less than a week before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who made climate change, environmental protections, and racial justice linchpins of his campaign. And as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has limited how people can interact with one another, Vasquez says the outdoors have served as a “saving grace” for many.
“I think because our country is more aware of the voices of people of color. And I think with this initiative coming out, I see the possibility of more resources and funds coming towards this, because this is such a hot and heated topic right now,” Jaylyn Gough, another leader of the Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. Initiative, says.
According to a July 2020 report from the Center for American Progress, “more than 76 percent of people who live in low-income communities of color live in nature-deprived places.” Without money for transportation or necessary gear, community members are often left without access to outdoor recreation and education.
Gough, who is also the founder and executive director of Native Women’s Wilderness, says there is also very little representation of these groups within the outdoor industry, which she says has been marketed primarily toward white people.
“One of the goals for the initiative is to round it out and give a new face, a new look, about who can be in the outdoors and what it can look like, what it should look like,” Gough says.
Gough, who grew up on the Navajo Nation, hopes that by giving young Native people access to the outdoors, the initiative will not only encourage active lifestyles, but also bring them closer to their heritage through activities like hunting and gathering medicinal plants and herbs.
The Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. Initiative was in part inspired by the New Mexico Outdoor Equity Fund (OEF), which launched in July 2019.
Vasquez, who co-authored the OEF, was excited to see the programs in rural, Native, and urban communities of New Mexico that applied for grants. However, due to limited funding, the OEF was only able to award grants to 25 of the 84 applicants. One of the goals of the Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. Initiative is to form a program that functions similarly on a national scale in the hopes of reaching more youth.
The initiative is currently funded by support from Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, and the other organizations it draws its leaders from, but is also soliciting donations and seeking industry partners. Once the initiative has a foothold, Vasquez hopes that like the OEF it will use both public and private sources to fund its projects. In the team’s push to secure public funding, it has a powerful backer in Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who’s working with the initiative to garner some of the support it needs in Congress.
“Outdoor opportunities in our parks and public lands should be accessible to all Americans regardless of wealth, where you grow up, or the color of your skin,” said Heinrich in a statement provided to Backpacker. “I look forward to working with this powerful national group of leaders from diverse backgrounds and communities to build on recent historic victories for conservation and make our parks and public lands places everyone can enjoy.”
For his part, Vasquez is excited that the initiative is being built ground-up, according to the needs that its founders see in their communities..
“I think many of us have really become accustomed to our voices and our experiences being tokenized in this space” Vasquez says, “and this is really an opportunity for our communities to create something and to lead the space.”