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BY JUDITH KOHLER
Rod Torrez and Max Trujillo remember trips to the mountains hunting and fishing with family and friends while growing up. They didn’t, at the time, call themselves “conservationists,” but getting outside and appreciating wildlife was a big part of their lives and the Latino community in general. Today they embrace the label and encourage other Latinos to as well through their work with HECHO — Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and Outdoors.
The organization, which debuted last fall during the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual conference, is meant to provide a voice for people who aren’t always part of the conversation about conservation, said Torrez, who serves as director of HECHO.
“We’ve not really been that involved in conservation as a unified group,” he said. “We need a place to gather. How do we express this long-felt need to protect these lands and aspects of our culture that we don’t want to lose?”
Trujillo can’t remember a time when he wasn’t eager to get outdoors and explore. He’s hunted and fished most of his life, exploring New Mexico’s streams and wilderness areas. It’s a way of life for Latinos in the Southwest.
“Latinos hunt, fish and use our public lands as much as everybody does,” he said. “But I feel like the Hispanic population is grossly underrepresented in the conservation movement. I feel like they need to take their seat at the table. Part of it is they don’t realize that they’re conservationists.”
A HECHO poll released in June showed 93 percent of Latinos in Colorado and New Mexico believe the government should protect public lands for recreation and the health of the environment. Both states have seen significant increases in oil and gas drilling on public lands. More than 70 percent of respondents, no matter their political affiliation, said they would favor a candidate who supported conservation and protecting public land.
The poll highlighted the economic clout of Hispanics who hunt, fish, camp and hike. During the year before the poll, 88 percent of the respondents bought equipment for outdoor activities with 54 percent in Colorado and 57 percent in New Mexico spending more than $250. The fact that Hispanics make up the fastest-growing segment of the population heightens the impact they can have, Trujillo and Torrez said.
The survey confirmed what Arizona state Rep. Mark Cardenas, of Phoenix and a HECHO board member, expected.
“Familial ties with the land, water and agriculture — they’re all incredibly important to the Latino community that’s been here for generations and generations,” he said.
Cardenas traveled to Washington with a group of students pushing for smarter use of the Colorado River, already overtaxed by the millions of people in the West who rely on it.
While the poll results underscored conservation’s importance to Latinos, Torrez and Trujillo say there are challenges when it comes to reaching younger generations.
“I grew up in a family of 11,” Trujillo said. “All our neighbors had big families. It was a weird day if we kids were indoors.”
Torrez, who grew up in the Denver area, said his family spent weekends in the mountains and hunted and fished in northern Arizona and New Mexico.
These days, videos, cell phones and similar distractions can be tough competition for the great outdoors. HECHO is reaching out to families and kids to keep people connected to nature. Torrez recently spent time with college students as part of the Hispanic Access Foundation’s efforts to raise awareness among young Latinos about conserving public lands. He met the students at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado.
In August, Trujillo helped organize an outing for families at the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge.
“I try to encourage people to get out to our wildlife refuges and national parks,” he said. “People experience things out there that are lifetime memories.”
It’s enough to turn them into conservationists. ♦
— Judith Kohler is the regional communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder, Colorado. Before joining NWF in 2011, she covered the environment, energy, politics and general news stories for The Associated Press in Colorado and Wyoming.