The goal of the tour was to educate and engage Latino youth as future stewards for our national parks and other protected lands. During the tour, youth learned about Joshua Tree National Park’s rich history and archaeology, fragile desert ecology and some of the advocacy and legislation that is critical in protecting our national treasures.
National Park Service staff and volunteers picnicked with the youth group at Hidden Valley and led them on a hike that weaved its way through a stunning canyon that was once a hiding place for cattle rustlers, but is now the domain of speckled cactus wrens and side-blotched lizards.
The tour was especially important because of California and the nation’s changing demographics. For example, according to the U.S Census, people of Hispanic descent comprised 38 percent of California’s population and will be a majority in our state by 2020. In the communities throughout the Coachella and Imperial valleys, Latinos comprise 50 percent to 80 percent of the population. Unfortunately, this demographic is often underrepresented at our national parks. According to a 2010 National Park study, Latinos comprised just 9 percent of the total of national park visitors, underscoring the need for further outreach.
Beneath the butterscotch-colored boulders and shady green piñon pines of Joshua Tree National Parks’ Hidden Valley Picnic Area, Congressman Ruiz offered an inspirational message to an enthusiastic audience.
“Today’s hike is a great opportunity to help instill in our young people the important cultural, spiritual and historical connection we desert dwellers have with the lands around us,” said Ruiz. “They are the next generation of stewards who will work to protect and preserve our national parks and monuments. It is critical we work together to help ensure that future generations have the opportunity to enjoy these remarkable landscapes.”
The May 3 tour is part of an effort to engage Coachella Valley Hispanic youth and church groups more in the desert’s public lands — our public lands — particularly as decisions are being made regarding these lands are adversely impacting air quality for both Joshua Tree National Park and these communities.
What’s needed is an enduring, multifaceted effort to educate and engage people in the Coachella Valley about our public lands: one which uses the spectacular resources of our California desert national parks like Joshua Tree to build a new, diverse generation that values public lands as a legacy entrusted to them.
The Coachella Valley is the ideal location to begin such an initiative because it is a key gateway to Joshua Tree National Park and huge swaths of Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas. New legislation that will soon be introduced to Congress, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act, provides a unique opportunity for these young stewards to get behind a bill that would add lands to our California desert national parks, create two large national monuments and designate wilderness.
It is our hope that the youth on the May 3 tour become our next generation of conservation champions who work to protect our heritage and our public lands.
Maite Arce is president and CEO of the Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF), a nonprofit organization that works to promote responsible citizenship, educational attainment, and active engagement in improving the health, environment, and financial well-being of Hispanic families throughout the United States.
Seth Shteir is California desert field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, whose mission is to protect and enhance America’s national parks for present and future generations.