Outdoor Equity

State steps up taking youth into the world


Walking in the footsteps of the Mogollon, playing in the Gila River, making boats, collecting pond samples, picnicking in the pine needle covered hollows – Grant County families get the opportunity to share the natural world with their offspring thanks to the state’s Outdoor Equity program.

This particular adventure is run by Patrice Mutchnick with the Heart of the Gila non-profit but children across New Mexico benefit through the grants this program provides.

The Outdoor Equity Fund was created to enable all New Mexican youth equitable access to the outdoors. According to their mission, “The grant supports programming that provides outdoor experiences that foster stewardship and respect for New Mexico’s land, water and cultural heritage.”

Since Outdoor Equity Fund was signed into law by the state governor in April 2019, the program has granted $2 million to 130 organizations throughout the state.

Local leaders, working in cultural, recreational, and environmental fields, are actively introducing over 37,000 young New Mexicans to the outdoors through day hikes, bike rides, camping trips, whitewater adventures, acequia irrigation, and more. For many of these youth, all 18 and younger, these transformational outdoor experiences are the first time they’ve participated in these kinds of outdoor recreation.

This year, 47 organizations were awarded grants ranging from $2,130 to $20,000. The total grant funding for the 2023 projects amounted to $795,133.28. The awardee list includes programs from 16 New Mexico counties with 50 percent supporting Tribal, rural and/or land grant communities.

The program Mutchnick’s team runs is centered on sensory things, she said. They take family groups, households including children from 3 to 12, to experience the Gila River environment.

Many of the children haven’t spent a lot of time outdoors, she said, so they have found that three hours is the comfort level.

“With a couple of hours, you don’t have time to develop much but it doesn’t matter,” she said. “They have the experiences. In environmental education, one of the most useful tricks is that you can build concepts while you are out here. By the time you are done you can move from the experiences to learning about the relationships – like the ecological relationship.”

Mutchnick said in her program, which is planned for Fridays (because the Cobre School District in the community she recruits from is off on Fridays), they provide lunch and activities which range from making boats to pond exploration taking samples and looking at the bugs. The youth experience a little history and lots of nature, she said.

“I started planning right away when we got [the grant],” she said. “If the idea is to create lasting accessibility and lasting relationships. If you take kids and put them on a bus, you bring them out and they don’t stay connected to the forest. But I think a lot of families we worked with did come back out here.”

Mutchnick’s goal is not only to get youth out into the wild but to see that a new generation of educators are ready to get out there and work with the kids. She has three people she is working with to pass her knowledge on to keep the passion for the outdoors and conservation going.

Other southern New Mexico equity fund project recipients include:

  • Aldo Leopold Charter School which provides engaging outdoor experiences to enliven curricular learning, develop a love of place, and an understanding of human impacts overtime to 6-12th graders.
  • The City of Sunland Park is offering a series of youth classes and seminars for all youth with a focus on grades 3 through 6. These events include a hands-on walk throughout the park highlighting the designated topic of the session with sessions including lessons on a variety of topics including, Humans and the Environment, Animals, Plants and Ecology.
  • Desert Community Wellness, Doña Ana County, has Project Cougars Outside providing the students at Lynn Community Middle School with hands-on, enriched experiences to foster a love of learning, connections to New Mexico histories, and wellness experiences in the outdoors.
  • The Silver City Watershed Keepers Summer Camp provides an underserved population of youth with an outdoor experience in their local watershed, public lands and community to empower stewardship of their environment and cultural heritage.
  • In preparation of the 2024 celebration of the 100th year anniversary of the first designated national wilderness area, the Forest Service has partnered with the Youth Mural Program to commemorate this milestone through public art murals created and designed by area youth. Two permanent murals will connect the Gila, Aldo, and Blue Range Wilderness areas to Silver City and surrounding communities.
  • In Otero County the Whiptail Trails Club empowers seventh and eighth-grade students to learn about southern New Mexico’s public lands providing in-class visits and field trips for more than 200 students in rural areas.
  • Velo Cruces, Inc. works with children with disabilities learning to ride adaptive cycles. Emotionally, riding adaptive cycles can help foster inclusion and a sense of independence.