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.”