A bill awaiting Colorado Gov. Jared Polis' signature is seen as a mark of progress among activists committed to diversifying Colorado's outdoors.
The bill would create the Outdoor Equity Grant Program, which would help fund organizations around the state in their efforts to instill a love of nature in young people from underserved populations.
Money would be streamed from Great Outdoors Colorado, the lottery-funded arm that pumped $77.8 million into recreation and preservation initiatives last year. The Outdoor Equity Grant Program would award up to $3 million annually, to be distributed by an independent board.
The program is inspired by other government-managed outdoor equity grants in California and New Mexico.
Rep. Leslie Herod has championed the bill — "so that our cherished outdoor spaces also become equitable spaces," she said in a press release, "spaces that are accessible to everyone, inclusive of race, ability, and income."
Blackpackers, aiming to "meet those at the intersection of underrepresentation and economic vulnerability," is an example of a nonprofit that could benefit from the grant program. Last month in promoting the bill, Herod hosted an online conversation with the executive director and founder of that group, Colorado Springs-based Patricia Cameron.
"As someone who is a proud Coloradan who enjoys the outdoors," Herod said, "I have seen firsthand that we are not doing enough to fund people who look like me and you in getting into the outdoors. Because guess what? It costs money."
At a ski area in April, even after discounts, it cost about $100 for each of the 27 Blackpackers participants to be outfitted and receive lessons and lift tickets, Cameron said in an interview with The Gazette. Costs for gear, food and transportation add up for camping trips she leads throughout the summer, not to mention insurance.
Cameron considered herself "super stoked" about the Outdoor Equity Grant Program.
"If you look at how that money can stretch, even just a small portion of that pot can get infinitely more people outdoors," she said.
The program could bring some peace of mind, she added. Nonprofits like hers depend on donations, "basically the goodwill of the people, which can fluctuate," she said. "It fluctuates on what's popular, what social movement is quote-unquote popular.
"So it's good to know there's something that might be stable as public interest might wane, which I think is unfortunate that it would wane. Equity is an issue that should always be at the forefront of our mind."
It's an issue spotlighted for the first time in Trust for Public Land's annual analysis of park systems across the country.
In Denver, the recent study found residents in low-income neighborhoods have 26% less access to park space than those in high-income neighborhoods. Nationwide, "parks serving primarily low-income households are, on average, four times smaller," the report read.
A racial gap was also determined. Nationwide, Trust for Public Land reported people of color on average have easy access to 44% less park space than white counterparts. In Colorado Springs, that divide is 83%, according to the study.
"Always, our first priority is taking care of what we have," said Karen Palus, city parks director, "but then also taking care of those communities in which we owe parks to still. Those obviously take significant investment."
From a formula including local and state government as well as nonprofit financial support, Trust for Public Land found per capita spending toward parks and recreation to be $78 in the Springs, below the national average of $96.
Investment is needed to address equity in her hometown, Cameron said. A recognition of systemic racism is also required, she said — economic and political forces that have kept marginalized groups from luxuries, including the outdoors.
"It's not that Black people don't have the opportunity, it's that the opportunities have been different," Cameron said. "It's why I'm glad we're focusing on an equity bill that actually says equity in it. This is something systemic that goes back generations. Cash was taken away. We need to put cash back in."