At Backcountry Experience, we want to be heard loud and clear that we have strong opinions about Colorado’s environmental health and the policies that influence it.
Stokes Poké partners with Conservation Colorado because we agree that the environment, economy, and social justice are inseparable.
The conservation community — which has traditionally excluded Indigenous voices — needs to recognize tribal outreach as a top priority as we strive to achieve our values of inclusion and intersectionality.
Through education, leadership development, and skill-building, Protégete is working to fight injustices by supporting youth in becoming the next generation of community advocates and environmental leaders.
Written by: Sara Penilla Montoya, Promotora and Protégete Intern
Too often, the youngest members of our society are left without a seat at the decision-making table.
We’ve been told that we are “too young,” “not educated enough,” or “not mature enough” to understand the issues that we see everyday in our schools, our neighborhoods, and our homes. We’re discouraged from actively engaging in our communities, stifling our collective voice and the positive changes that we want to make to improve our future.
That still hasn’t stopped today’s generation from standing up together, raising our voices, and declaring how significant it is to be a part of change.
The environmental movement is the perfect example to show how children, teens, and youth — the people that will wrestle with climate impacts for generations to come — are stepping up to defend their future. The conservation movement poses an immense opportunity for young people, especially for people from frontline communities, to express the need for powerful climate leadership — and that’s why I was so excited to attend the Rising Leaders training in Washington, DC.
At the League of Conservation Voters training, students from all over the country learned more about the most pressing environmental issues affecting our communities and how storytelling can be a tool to lobby decision-makers at the state and federal levels.
Four students from the Protégete team experienced firsthand the importance and power our personal stories hold as we lobbied with members of Congress from Colorado. For some students, the trip was their first visit to our country’s capital.
We took the chance to talk to elected officials about the issues that are not only impacting our lives, but the livelihoods of millions of Americans. The stories shared a common message: it’s time for climate action, for us, our environment, and future generations.
Xioana, 16: Protecting Future Generations
“When I was 13 years old, my family and I made the move from Caracas, Venezuela, to Denver, Colorado. My country has historically been lauded the most prosperous in South America; we had a booming economy that enticed immigration from around the world, and we welcomed everyone. That is, until political corruption changed everything.
My family saw firsthand how economic unrest had unimaginable ramifications on every aspect of peoples’ lives, including great environmental justice implications. My grandfather not only struggled for financial stability, but for access to water. He can barely afford to take just a few showers a year, due to drought exacerbated by climate change.
I remember my first day of school [in the United States]. I was walking through the hallways, fascinated by the fact that I had a locker, that breakfast was free, and that people gave away pencils. I realized that the opportunities I craved for so long were finally within my reach.
Too often, we waste our potential and decrease our value in the eyes of society; but the beauty of our ephemeral existence is that if we realize it soon enough, we can learn to appreciate the little things.
I come from a place where corruption is abundant while food, water, and electricity are insufficient. While spending thirteen years of my life in this place, I never realized how much I was being deprived, because it is easy to be satisfied with what you have when you have never known any better. In my young eyes, America’s only great value was that it snowed every now and then. I never imagined this to be the place of freedom and opportunities. The place that I come from is falling apart as I write this and losing its values as you read it. The reality is that while some people can escape this fate, others cannot. I was one of the lucky ones.
Since moving to Thornton, I have felt very fortunate that these difficulties are not an everyday reality for me and my mother. It’s why I want to join the Air Force when I graduate high school; I love this country, it’s my home and I want to keep it safe. But I need my politicians to keep me safe, too. I live right on the outskirts of Commerce City, a municipality that is known for its high concentration of industries and hardworking communities of color. These factories, including a refinery located a mere five miles from my house, cause profound health impacts on the children growing up near them.
I went to Washington D.C. to tell our members of Congress that I am the future of this country and they need to protect me.”
I am young, an immigrant, Latina, and powerful. I am the face of the United States, and I believe everyone deserves a healthy environment.
Eunice, 16: Working Together to Stop Climate Change
“This past year, I’ve been a part of the Leadership Development class at The New America School in Thornton. My teacher, Zoraida Martinez, partnered with Protégete to teach us about environmental justice and civic engagement. We learned about how the impacts of climate change are made worse because of the waste that we create — a lot of which could be diverted by recycling or composting.
For example, when we throw plastic into the garbage, it can end up as harmful pollution in the ocean or contaminating the water and soil of our communities. Because plastic can’t biodegrade, it sits in landfills and contaminate the places where we live. That is why it is so important for everyone to do their part in protecting our planet.
I had never gotten involved in politics before; as an immigrant from Mexico, I didn’t think it was my place. But Ms. Martinez and Protégete helped me realize how powerful my classmates and I are.
And we were heard! I felt like I was putting my grain of sand in solving this huge problem, but I can’t do this alone.
That is why I went to DC to ask our federal representatives to hold polluting industries accountable. It is imperative for the government and factories to work together with regular people, like me, to stop climate change and keep Mother Earth safe.”
Eric, 22: An Exchange of Ideas
“Participating in the Rising Leaders training was a great experience. I had never been to Washington, D.C. before, and there were so many different things I was able to learn from that place, from how city infrastructure can impact our communities and our climate, to how important our stories truly are.
We frequently used public transportation (which I realized was cheaper and more efficient than our system in Denver) and discussed how communities and air quality can benefit from more public transit options.
The opportunity to learn about how important our voices are — and how we can use our stories to lobby our elected officials — was eye-opening. While I had visited the state Capitol in Colorado before, I didn’t fully understand the importance of personal stories and how they can illuminate why work needs to be done for everyone to live in an equitable world.
When we can tie these issues to ourselves — to real people, and even those who we are lobbying to — we better understand the gravity of the situation and know that we really do need to make changes.”
Our voices are what is going to shape how we solve the issues affecting us today. We shouldn’t be afraid to use our power to tell our elected officials to help us implement changes now.
Sara, 19: A Passion for the Future
“My passion for the environment is something that I have carried with me since I migrated to the United States from Colombia. It led me to a path of being what most people would call an “environmentalist:” recycling every piece of plastic and paper, turning off the lights in every room when they were not being used.
When I turned 15, I started volunteering with Protégete and learned that being an environmentalist meant so much more. I became aware of the environmental conditions in my community and those surrounding it were not what they needed to be: clean, healthy, and accessible. Such is the case for most communities of color and lower-income communities around our country. We have an obligation to these communities and others who are most impacted by environmental degradation to take care of our planet.
The Rising Leaders and lobbying experience was extremely empowering. It constantly feels as if my community’s voice isn’t considered or heard when it comes to issues directly affecting us. But when I visited my elected officials to tell them why I am so passionate about these issues and what actions they can take to support my community, I was reminded how strong my community’s voice is.”
Although some of us can’t go to DC to lobby every day, we still have the power to make a change for the better. I hope that with this experience, I can motivate other young people to speak up so we can use our voices together to continue to tell our elected officials to take action to save our environment and people.
Taking part in this trip, including its trainings, and lobbying helped us realize that our voice is as strong as it could ever be, no matter how old we are or what limitations others impose on us. We can make a change in this world and we are the leaders of today. Encouraging the youth to be engaged in the issues that affect our community is essential, so just like us, they realize the importance their voice holds, and the power they have to advocate for themselves, and everyone else being silenced.
Protégete joined students and faculty at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) to investigate microscale particulate pollution in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea—two communities with a long history of environmental injustice.
We sat down with Promotorxs instructors and students to learn more about how the program helps Colorado’s communities, environment, and our future.
If there’s one thing that Coloradans all share, it’s a love for our public lands. From the rushing waters of the Arkansas River to the otherworldly atmosphere of the Great Sand Dunes, our state and national parks are a shared playground where our communities can recreate and connect with nature — and with each another.
According to the latest Conservation in the West poll, 73% of citizens live here in the Centennial State thanks to our ability to live, work, and play near public lands. Public lands don’t just fill Coloradans’ weekend plans; the communities and businesses that thrive around public lands fuel a thriving outdoor recreation economy that supports nearly 230,000 local jobs and contributes more than $28 billion in consumer spending per year.
It’s clear that public lands aren’t just a part of the Coloradan’s lives; public lands are essential to the Colorado way of life.
We love our public lands so much that Colorado became the first state in the nation to establish a state holiday in honor of our public lands. Colorado Public Lands Day, which occurs each year on the third Saturday in May, celebrates Colorado’s varied public landscapes and offers all Coloradans an opportunity to spend time in and show their support for the places we love.
Across the state, dozens of different nonprofits and groups organized activities — from trail cleanups to speeches from the stage of a music festival — that gathered Coloradans around a common cause: to protect, preserve, and appreciate our public lands. The crew at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy organized a trash clean-up at around the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park. Together, 30 volunteers collected over 50 pounds of trash.
The folks from the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, the Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department, and the Friends of Red Rock Canyon worked to restore a trail in the Red Rock Canyon Open Space. Afterward, the group toasted to a job well done at Fossil Craft Beer Company, a Colorado Springs brewery, that released an “RMF-IPA” collaborative beer that was brewed using local ingredients. Public lands lovers with the Colorado Mountain Club helped perform essential tread maintenance, fixing three eroded areas and bolstered three sections of critical edge with rocks on the Cave Creek trail near Palmer Lake.
The Front Range Conservation Colorado team and Protégete, alongside partners Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, Continental Divide Trail Coalition, Sierra Club Colorado, and Mile High Youth Corps, gathered at Del Mar Park in Aurora to talk with community members about the importance of access to our public lands. The event opened with a blessing from Ralph Lefthandbull, a local Lakota man who burned sage as a part of a ceremony to start the Colorado Public Lands Day celebration.
For Regina Whiteskunk-Lopez, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and former Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Co-Chair, Colorado Public Lands Day arrives with the reminder that it’s vital that we recognize the history of our public lands and the ties to the lands, no matter our history. The outdoor recreation world has a challenge ahead of itself to continue to make sure our public lands are genuinely free, said Whiteskunk-Lopez, “we must acknowledge, reconcile, and most importantly heal from our past.”
It’s not a secret that the outdoor recreation industry — and most Americans — struggle to recognize and understand the fact that companies’ profits come from stolen land. It’s not a secret that public lands, now and throughout history, have not always been a safe place for black, brown, and indigenous communities. So, it’s not a shock that the members of the industry have made missteps in its efforts toward lasting, impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors. It is especially unsurprising when you take a look at the history of our public lands, examine which opportunities were given to governments and people, and think about which communities have reliable access to healthy, sustainable public lands today.
A New Frontier: Working on Inclusivity and Diversity in the Outdoors
Connor Ryan, an athlete ambassador with Natives Outdoors, recognizes that most Americans find it difficult to look at the reality of the devastating humanitarian and environmental implications of colonialism and Manifest Destiny policies; but “that’s a story we can’t get away from as native people.” In the outdoor recreation industry, Ryan recognizes that indigenous communities are looking for “some level of justice” and the acknowledgment that companies are reaping billions in profit “because we lost our home.” This reexamination and reckoning with history is crucial, affirms Ryan, as conservation and the environment play a role in public lands policy and the outdoor industry. “There’s an equal exchange that can come out of allowing our voice to play a role in how we take care of these places,” said Ryan, “because we’ve been doing that for thousands of years.”
“Nobody really wants to deal with the fact that the outdoor recreation industry tends to be a bunch of white, cisgender, heterosexual men — and few are willing to grapple with their privilege,” said Amanda Jameson, an avid backpacker and blogger who works with Big City Mountaineers and joined Conservation Colorado and Protégete on Colorado Public Lands Day. “The industry hasn’t taken the time to sit with their complicity in all of this,” said Jameson.
For Cristal Cisneros, who’s currently pursuing a Doctorate degree and is a volunteer with Latinos Outdoors, the most significant growing pain the industry is facing — “and most frustrating aspect” of the industry — is that diversity, equity, and inclusion are meaningless buzzwords for a lot of companies.
“When you think about it, what are they really doing? Are companies hiring people of color; are they in executive positions?” asked Cisneros. “It’s not just people of color; it’s people with disabilities, it’s non-binary folk; all kinds of people that need a seat at the table,” she said. Systematic change across the outdoor recreation and conservation worlds, said Cisneros, is needed to create real change.
For a lot of Coloradans, Colorado Public Lands Day fosters a safe space for this conversation while providing an opportunity to celebrate our shared love of public lands.
“In Colorado, it’s kind of second hand to be involved with the outdoor world as a Coloradan. That’s unique and deserves to be celebrated,” said Ryan. He continued, “Having a day to honor our public lands is a beautiful thing — and it makes a lot of sense!” said Ryan.
“It’s really important for people, especially people from marginalized populations, to reclaim that bond with nature and reap the physical and mental health benefits of being in nature,” concluded Cisneros. “Colorado has so many beautiful spaces, so it’s essential to truly appreciate where we live.”
“There are a lot of organizations like African American Parks and Nature Experience, Queer Nature, and Latinos Outdoors that are out there spreading the word, doing the work, and trying to give a voice to those of us who have not been traditionally represented in the outdoor industry,” shared Jameson. “To have a state and the people in the state recognize that public lands are so important and that there’s an entire day devoted to that means a lot. It’s one of the reasons I’m out here in Colorado: the mountains, the sky, and the outdoors and to be around a lot of like-minded people on this day, in this place.”
Written by Jenny Gaeng
Saturday, May 18 is Colorado Public Lands Day. Like the best holidays, it’s not just a day; it’s a mission.
Eight years ago, I lay in a meadow under the stars, sea-level lungs aching after the climb, and gazed at the unimpeded Milky Way. At the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, the galaxy smeared across the sky as if someone dipped their finger in chalk and trailed the color through space and time. For the first time, I saw myself in the context of everything, thanks to our public lands.
Year after year, I returned to the Sangre de Cristos. I canoed to a waterfall in a glacial lake, learned to spot wild raspberries, climbed a fourteener and tearfully spat that I would never do it again (then I did it again). I brought guest after guest to the meadow of my metaphysical baptism: my mom, my friends, a once-true love, a random Tinder date. I presented the land and the lake as if I owned them, chatting proudly about weather and geology. Yes, the Sangre de Cristos were mine; they belonged to all of us, as public lands do. It seemed uncomplicated.
My story isn’t unique, nor is the fact that it’s one colored by privilege.
I started to research the history of the area. I learned that the Southern Ute camped and traveled in the Sangres, hunting elk and gathering roots and seeds for medicine. I read the dramatic crest of the mountains served as a fortress against invasions — before the Spanish found their way in from the south. I found out that “Blanca Peak” is another name for Sisnaajiní, the sacred eastern boundary of the Navajo homeland; today, the tribe still fights to protect this area from oil and gas drilling operations.
Millions of people visit Colorado’s public lands every year to hike, climb, ski, hunt, fish, and maybe have a life-changing experience as I did. And like me, the vast majority of visitors are white — nearly 95% of visitors to Forest Service lands self-identified that way during monitoring from 2010-2014. The disparity between racial demographics and National Forest visitors in Colorado ranges from 30-70%.
The roots of this fact are not a mystery. The United States has an established history of white supremacy that is set up, protected, and perpetuated by racist policies across our economy, government, and the systems these institutions create.
“Public lands for all,” we say. But you can’t just tell someone they own a locked building and expect them to find a way inside; everyone needs a key. I was lucky enough to be handed one.
Representation, marketing, and centers of outdoor recreation help cultivate a homogenous outdoor culture. It’s personified by being thin, fit, and clad in expensive gear; it’s predominantly male, cis, heterosexual, and hinges on the knowledge to survive and thrive in the wilderness. It’s what we see on the cover of Outside Magazine and it’s what we see on trails throughout Colorado. Coloradans that identify as nonwhite can hike for days in the Colorado backcountry without seeing a face that looks like theirs.
And that brings me to my mission — to our mission.
Outdoor adventurers and activists of all races, genders, and backgrounds are upping the representation game and inspiring new generations. You should pay more attention to their words and ideas than mine, and Conservation Colorado will be featuring their voices in the lead-up to Public Lands Day. Let’s talk about it. Let’s raise their stories as high as Mt. Elbert!
We love our public lands in Colorado. We love them enough to fight for them, which is the reason Colorado Public Lands Day exists. We love them enough that we’ll never stop trying to make them the best they can be — which means looking critically at our history, and shaping our future to be more inclusive and representative of all Coloradans.
We have to work together. I’m never sure of the way forward, and I’m bound to say the wrong thing or screw up at some point — we all are.
As Teresa Baker said in a recent episode of the Safety Third podcast, “Rebranding the Outdoors: “This is going to feel inauthentic as hell — because it hasn’t been done…push your fears aside about it not feeling authentic because that’s just where we are.”
If I can climb Crestone Needle and cross the Conejos River in the spring snowmelt, I think I can learn more about what it takes to make public lands truly representative and open to all people. I think you can, too.
When it comes to oil and gas development in Colorado, our legislators can’t revisit the state’s outdated laws soon enough.
From January 14 to 29, Coloradans witnessed: cleanup efforts of a pipeline leaking thousands of gallons of contaminantsalong the Colorado River; over a thousand gallons of natural gas fluids flow into Parachute Creek; and oil and gas regulators decline to hold a hearing about their approval of a natural gas well pad located 500 feet from homes in Battlement Mesa.
And these problems are not new.
For communities on the frontiers of oil and gas development, the past decade has been marked by the expansion of heavy industry into their backyards. At the same time, regulators have allowed industry to call the shots while leaving communities on the sidelines.
These issues have persisted for far too long. Our state legislators must enact common-sense reforms that prioritize health, safety, and our environment over corporate profits.
Colorado’s current oil and gas policies protect industry profits, not people.
As it stands, the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC)—the agency responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry—is to “foster” exploration and production of oil and gas resources and protect public health, safety, and welfare.
These priorities are fundamentally in conflict with one another, which is no surprise to those who have been impacted by oil and gas development.
“The COGCC is an arm of the industry,” said Dave Devanney, Battlement Mesa resident and Chairman of Battlement Concerned Citizens, a group formed to protect the community from the effects of fracking and drilling. “[It’s] not helping citizens deal with the issues of oil and gas in their neighborhoods. There are very little consequences.”
Leslie Robinson, a Garfield County resident and Chair of Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, a community group raising awareness about oil and gas impacts, shared this sentiment by saying, “The mission of the COGCC is to encourage oil and gas development in Colorado and make sure that the royalty owners can get to their assets as cheaply as possible. That’s it.”
To community members, it’s clear: the current system is broken.
People deserve a say in what happens in their own neighborhoods.
In Colorado, local governments can be sued for trying to respond to oil and gas development. This is problematic not only because local governments should have a say in what their communities look like, but because of the health impacts that oil and gas operations can have on our families and environment.
As oil and gas operations move closer to our homes, schools and parks, Coloradans are increasingly exposed to toxic air pollution, spills, explosions and fires, and a host of health impacts including cancer, birth defects and asthma.
But even as new technologies allow operators to expand into heavily populated urban and suburban neighborhoods, these concerns are largely ignored. Though oil and gas development has evolved rapidly over the past decade, our laws and regulations haven’t kept pace, leaving our communities and environment to bear the consequences.
Leslie and Dave know firsthand what it’s like to live with the fear of what these impacts will have on their communities.
Leslie experienced the potential danger of oil and gas development when a spill happened on the same day that the COGCC announced a new natural gas pad would be drilled in Battlement Mesa. The pad—located only 508 feet away from homes and 600 feet from the Colorado River—alarmed the community. Leslie and others asked the COGCC to more closely examine the impacts and dangers of the project, but the community’s calls fell on deaf ears.
As a resident living in close proximity to the proposed natural gas pad, Dave knows that we shouldn’t drill “where our kids go to school and where they play—where we [all] live, work and play.”
Regulators need better tools for ensuring that industry operations are responsible, accountable, and transparent.
We need more inspectors to ensure wells, gathering sites, and storage facilities are maintained and operated properly. We also need clearer standards to hold oil and gas operators accountable for any damage that they cause to our landscapes, rivers and communities. Not only for us, but for Colorado’s air, water, wildlife, and future generations.
“It’s necessary for our kids to grow up in a healthy environment,” said Dave.
“I don’t have any children myself, but I don’t want to ruin the world for the next generation. It’s important to be a voice,” said Leslie.
It is past time for our state legislators to act. With the 2019 legislative session underway, our elected leaders have the responsibility and the opportunity to reform this broken, outdated system and put our communities’ health first.
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