Reconnecting community to our lands and water

You know I really believe it isn’t as bad as it seems. Take this example. This past August I had the opportunity to partner with Angel Peña, co-founder of Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, on a presentation for stakeholders during a listening session on the New Mexico Agriculture and Natural Resources Trust Fund (NMANRT), legislation we have been trying to pass through the New Mexico legislature. I first met Peña years ago when we worked on a project together in Colorado. I already knew he was a good guy, and we both acknowledged the organizations we work for are not always natural allies in how we approach conservation work on public and private lands. At the outset, I wasn’t totally confident that our presentation would be a success.

Man  I was wrong. I initially thought the presentation was only going to be about our organizations and how a New Mexico Agriculture and Natural Resources Trust Fund will benefit New Mexicans. The NMANRT legislation will allow New Mexico to establish a perpetual source of state funding to leverage private and federal dollars dedicated to the restoration and protection of New Mexico’s land, water, wildlife and agricultural resources. This legislation was modeled after the successful Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust (WWNRT).  Since its inception in 2005 the WWNRT has put over $580 million in work on the ground and more than 800 total completed projects. 

I thought our time would be used to convince stakeholders why this is vital to NM right now.  However, for Peña it was all about building relationships and he believed our presentation should allow a diversity of stakeholders to tell their stories about why they do the work they do and what they need to meet their highest expectations. He wanted to take the opportunity to help everyone get to know each other.  His theory was that we could begin to build the trust we need to live and work together to conserve our land, water, and wildlife for all New Mexicans now and for future generations.  Peña knows that the promise of putting millions of dollars of conservation work on the ground with the help of a NMANRT is about people working together, helping each other to be the best stewards of our land, and water that they can possibly be.

Angel Peña is a first-generation American and an archaeologist who lives in Las Cruces with his wife and three young children. As the president of Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, he has been very successful in making policy changes for historically underserved communities in New Mexico, including the breakthrough passage of the New Mexico Outdoor Equity Fund Act in 2019. The New Mexico Outdoor Equity Fund (NMOEF) is the first state fund in the nation set up to explicitly “allow all youth equitable access to the outdoors.” The fund makes grants that provide youth the opportunity to experience the beauty of our state’s wildlife and natural resources on public lands. This way, New Mexico’s youth can reconnect to the land and learn the lessons of their ancestors, even if their families lack the financial resources to do so. Peña says “It’s about empowering the people that have true, authentic and deep-rooted ties to the land.” Similar funds, modeled after New Mexico’s, have been set up in California and Colorado since 2019.   

On the heels of the successful creation of the New Mexico Outdoor Equity Fund and sister funds in California and Colorado, Nuestra Tierra helped convene a coalition of Black, Indigenous, and other leaders of color to co-author the federal Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. (Fund for Underserved Tribal, Urban, and Rural Equity) Act. Peña explains, “We must devote real resources to expanding opportunities for those in communities who have been historically excluded and ensure we are supporting the next generation of stewards of our air, land, water and wildlife.” The coalition expects legislation will be introduced in Congress by the 100th day of the new administration. The act would authorize federal funds to flow into state outdoor equity funds like New Mexico’s, incentivizing other states to create them.

We are facing many challenges with our lands, water and natural resources today: drought, wildfires, climate change, etc. We know that any challenge can be solved with sufficient financial resources and the proper expertise.  But sometimes policy changes are required at the state or federal level in order to get the financial resources needed.  Today is one of those times we need both federal and state policy changes to help solve some of the challenges we are facing.  We need to come together as neighbors to pass the New Mexico Agriculture and Natural Resources Trust Fund and F.U.T.U.R.E so we can fund the many projects needed to restore and protect New Mexico’s land and water resources, and to fund opportunities where our youth can reconnect to the land that sustains us! 

Lawrence Gallegos was the 6th generation to run his family ranch in San Luis Valley in Colorado. After back surgery caused him to retire from ranching, he moved to Santa Fe where he works as the New Mexico field organizer for WLA.