If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that New Mexicans want to be outside — for recreation, mental health and so much more.

Following a year when children have overwhelmingly been stuck inside on screens, lawmakers have an exciting opportunity to get more kids outside. To do that, they must support a $1 million special appropriation request to fund the Outdoor Equity Fund — a program created by New Mexicans for New Mexicans to ensure more equitable access to our public lands.

Last year, we made history by becoming the first state to launch such a program. But because funding was limited to $100,000, only 26 grants were distributed, even though more than 100 cities, counties, tribes, and organizations submitted creative ideas.

The power is now in state legislators’ hands to fully fund the program at $1 million, which would introduce more than 38,000 youth to things we all know and love in New Mexico — hunting, fishing, gardening, hiking and just plain exploring.

A quick look into some of the recently funded programs offers a glimpse into some of the opportunities: there’s the Kids in Need of Supportive Services (KISS) organization that offers youth in Grant County the ability to visit local parks and lakes while learning how to cope with issues like anger management, motivation, communication, drug awareness, domestic violence and self-esteem.

There’s the National Indian Youth Leadership Project’s Project Venture, which uses traditional American Indian models of learning to promote community service through culture and outdoor experiential learning for youth in the Gallup area. There’s also the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, which uses water-based outdoor recreation as a vehicle for educating Zuni youth about the impacts the Zuni River has on its land, people and religion.

Up north, the Mora Creative Council received a grant to help introduce its youth to the natural resources of the community and inspire them to explore higher education and career opportunities that are connected to the local environment. Nearby, the Hermit’s Peak Wilderness Alliance has been laying the groundwork for a long-term project to revitalize the Gallinas River, and it will use funds to foster “querencia” (a love of and connection to place) in youth in hopes they will gain a greater sense of pride and responsibility for the river and community.

Two great nonprofits are ready to help youth learn more about a time-honored tradition in New Mexico: fishing. Projects with the local nonprofit Fly Fish and the Friends of the Pecos National Park will give rural middle and high school age children the opportunity to learn how to fly fish while fostering stewardship and respect for our lands, wildlife and waters and understanding more about New Mexico trout.

I could go on — and I want to, because these programs so exciting.

Just think of the opportunities we can unleash in all four corners of the state if we support the Outdoor Recreation Division’s request to fully fund this great program.

Local communities are eager to get more youth outside. They have done their part by planning such wonderful opportunities. Now it’s up to lawmakers to help make these projects come to life.

We fully recognize the challenges that our legislative leaders like Sen. George Muñoz and Rep. Patty Lundstrom have right now as they work to produce a responsible budget that supports our basic needs and helps New Mexico emerge from the pandemic healthier and stronger.

And we know that all legislators want to do everything they can to support New Mexico’s children. This session, fully funding the Outdoor Equity Fund is a simple and easy way to do just that.

Simon Sotelo III is the Latino Outreach Coordinator for New Mexico Wild, an independent, statewide, homegrown, grassroots conservation organization dedicated to the protection, restoration and continued respect of New Mexico’s wildlands and wilderness areas.

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