Thursday, June 18, 2015 | 2 a.m.
This week, the 32nd annual National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) conference is in Las Vegas. As the leading nonprofit that facilitates the full participation of Hispanics in the American political process, NALEO’s conference provides a vital forum for discussing the key policy issues facing our communities. The agenda for this year includes sessions addressing perennial topics such as health care, education and immigration reform, but something equally as important to Hispanic voters is missing: conservation and environmental protection.
Many people don’t realize environmental protection is ranked as a high concern among Hispanics, according to recent polls. The latest groundbreaking study published by the Hispanic Access Foundation found that 80 percent of Hispanic voters polled believed it was “extremely” or “very” important for the federal government to take action on climate change. A poll conducted last year by The New York Times, Stanford University and the nonpartisan environmental research group Resources for the Future found Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to view global warming as a problem that affects them personally. Another national study of Hispanic voters conducted last year by Latino Decisions and the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than 85 percent of Hispanics said air and water pollution were “very” or “extremely” important issues.
Clearly, protecting and conserving our environment are issues where Hispanic policymakers could and should be playing leadership roles.
Some already are assuming that position in a year of notable firsts for Hispanic officials. For example, Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) became the first Hispanic ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, joining nine other Hispanics sitting on the committee with jurisdiction over our public lands and other natural resources. Congressman Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who has been an advocate for conservation and environmental protection, became the first Hispanic chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Plus, Rep. Grijalva, along with 18 co-sponsors, has introduced a bill to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) — a program created by Congress in 1965 to protect natural areas and our cultural heritage, and to provide all Americans access to recreation.
Nevada has received approximately $104 million from the conservation fund over the past five decades, protecting some of the state’s most treasured places, such as Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The fund also has helped develop and conserve recreational spaces throughout the Las Vegas metro area, such as Lorenzi Park, Sunset Park, Nature Park, Freedom Park and Floyd Lamb Park, which has been an oasis in the desert for thousands of years.
The LWCF expires in about 100 days, so there is no time like the present for Hispanics to galvanize our elected officials and communities to ensure reauthorization.
While the conservation fund has certainly been beneficial to all people, the program has deeper meaning for Hispanics. The fund isn’t simply about protecting land and water, it helps with conservation of historic places where Hispanic families have lived for generations. Hispanics have a rich history woven into the fabric of our lands with centuries-old traditions of hunting, fishing, camping, even gathering materials for healing and art.
Additionally, the fund provides access to park spaces and the great outdoors for recreation opportunities that have a positive impact on Hispanic communities’ health and quality of life.
Hispanics can lead on this issue and are poised to do so with strong federal representation and an electorate base that overwhelmingly supports conservation, not just as a smart policy, but as a moral imperative. Last year, the Sierra Club conducted a study in which 92 percent of Hispanics polled said they had a moral responsibility to take care of “God’s creations on this Earth.” It’s not just policy. It’s personal.
The LWCF conversation has begun in Hispanic communities, and the NALEO conference affords leaders a unique opportunity to amplify that conversation. Despite its absence from the official agenda, several conservation groups will be in attendance (including the one I represent, Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors) to continue the conversation about Hispanics in conservation. The fund will be a top issue to discuss. Hispanics want it and need it. And Hispanics can be the leaders who ensure this vital program lives on as a tribute to the generations who lived on these lands before us and a legacy for the generations to come.
Camilla Simon is director of Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors.