Conservation events across Utah hope to get more Latino families outdoors
It’s hard to compete with a giant lizard.
At the Red Hills Desert Garden in St. George, a small group of kids crowds around a red and black Gila monster that almost looks too big to be real.
Five-year-old Tommy Cottam is impressed.
“They can blend in,” he said. “I wish I could camouflage.”
His sister, Ellie, prefers some of the other desert animals on display, such as the tortoise or rare Virgin River fish. It may be the family’s first time attending an event like this, but being out in nature is already one of her favorite things.
“I just like that we're out in the sun all day,” she said, “and … that we can be together as a family.”
This wildlife meet-and-greet is one of more than 200 events happening across the country as part of Latino Conservation Week, a national initiative aimed at getting more families connected with nature. Organizers hope events like this can help lower the barriers to outdoor recreation and start conversations about conserving the environment.
Tommy and Ellie’s mother, Ashley Cottam, said the family recently moved to St. George from Florida. So exploring this arid habitat can help them get to know their new home.
If kids get to know the creatures living around them, she said, they’re more likely to want to take care of their local environment.
“Being outdoors for kids is so important for their development,” Cottam said. “[My son] loves snakes and scorpions, and he's had so many questions, so this is awesome that he's able to ask them all and learn and get answers.”
Providing some of those answers is Zach Valois, public lands program manager with Conserve Southwest Utah.
He cups his hands to hold a small, tan scorpion and lowers it toward a group of inquisitive kids, who quickly flood the air with questions about stingers and pinchers.
“You can see their minds start spinning,” he said. “To see people develop this curiosity and problem-solving right in front of you is incredibly rewarding.”
Latino Conservation Week has grown significantly since the Hispanic Access Foundation held its first nine events in 2014. This year, there are more than nine events in Utah alone, ranging from a canoe trip on the Jordan River to a nighttime desert walk in St. George.
But the initiative also points to the challenges of reaching communities who haven't always felt welcome in the outdoor recreation world.
While the table next to the Gila monster and tortoise is covered with Spanish language pamphlets, most of the families attending are not Latino.
Valois, who is Hispanic, said that underscores the obstacles facing organizations that want to engage Latinos and other groups who often haven’t been included before. Making it easier for people to take their first hike or touch their first tortoise shell with guided events can remove some of the unknown.
“It can be very daunting if you're not familiar with it, if you're new to the area. … And that doesn't even speak about some of the cultural and social obstacles that prevent people from engaging,” he said. “So it's very important to be able to provide this pathway to experiencing the landscape here.”
Ryan White manages the Red Hills Desert Garden, a botanical garden between St. George and the mammoth Red Cliffs Conservation Area north of town. Its location at the urban-wildland interface, he said, can help visitors take baby steps into nature near their front door.
“For some people who maybe aren't comfortable going on a hike out into the middle of the desert, it kind of gets their toes wet a little bit.”
Another obstacle that can keep people on the sidelines is money for park admission and the expenses of needing specific gear. That’s why many events during Latino Conservation Week are free and provide everything people need to participate.
And once people from more backgrounds feel like they can take part, that means there can be a broader variety of perspectives in the conversations about preserving natural spaces. Voices from Latinos and other minority groups, Valois said, often go unheard even though the ideas they can share about conservation are no less vital.
“Ultimately they're hearing that their voices matter. They are just as important as everyone else's,” Valois said. “We all need to engage these topics if we hope to achieve any degree of sustainability, and so we need everyone's voice involved in that.”