Watching the sunrise from atop a 14er, hiking through the fall leaves, rafting along white-capped rapids with friends, or relaxing in the cool grass of a local park. Across the West, getting outside to enjoy our abundant natural landscapes is often thought of as one of the greatest benefits of calling the West home.
Unfortunately, some communities lack access to the experiences that many of us take for granted. A bill passed in the 2021 Colorado legislative session, with support from Western Resources Advocates, is helping address inequities in access to the outdoors and provide opportunities for outdoor experiences and nature-based education into the future.
Experiencing our wild landscapes and flowing rivers is a part of our culture in Colorado. These places fuel a booming outdoor recreation economy throughout our region and are a valuable asset for communities looking to transition away
from extractive industries.
However, access to outdoor spaces and experiences is not shared equally by all. Diverse and low-income communities, both urban and rural, face significant barriers to accessing public lands, open spaces, and parks. Many of our communities lack physical proximity to green space or affordable transportation to our region’s recreational opportunities. In addition, diverse and low-income communities may not feel comfortable or safe in those places. They may encounter financial barriers that limit their access to recreational activities and equipment.
That’s where Colorado’s Outdoor Equity Grant Program comes in. Established by passage of Colorado House Bill 21-1318, the program provides grants to Colorado groups to directly help diverse and low-income youth and their families overcome access barriers to outdoor experiences and educational opportunities. State Representative Leslie Herod sponsored HB 21-1318, and it was supported by a broad array of state legislators, decision makers, and community leaders.
WRA was integral in the creation and passage of this important bill. We joined a BIPOC-led coalition of community advocates, brought together by Next100 Colorado, to provide policy recommendations for the program. As part of a core policy team that collaborated with Rep. Herod and Colorado Parks and Wildlife on policy development, WRA helped draft the bill and championed HB 21-1318 through the legislative process. The bill was passed with strong bipartisan support and was signed into law last summer. The legislation follows the precedent set by similar programs in California and New Mexico, but it is the first to establish a permanent, sustainable source of funding that can reliably provide outdoor opportunities for underserved youth for generations to come.
The Outdoor Equity Grant Program is funded by proceeds from the Colorado lottery, starting with $750,000 in 2021 and growing to $3 million annually over the next four years. Following the passage of the bill, the Colorado legislature added an additional $1 million to help kickstart the program. Allocation of these funds is guided by an independent board to ensure the money supports meaningful opportunities to introduce the next generation of recreationists, conservationists, stewards, and advocates to the outdoors and closes the “nature gap” to ensure all our communities have equitable access to natural spaces.
Diverse and low-income communities, both urban and rural, face significant barriers to accessing public lands, open spaces, and parks.
The establishment of the Outdoor Equity Grant Program is a major win for outdoor access in Colorado. But WRA isn’t stopping there. Our team of policy experts is working with state legislators, management agencies, and local decision makers to translate the Colorado Outdoor Equity Grant Program model to states across our region. New legislative efforts will build similar programs and improve existing ones so that all underserved youth and their families have a direct, sustainable, well-managed resource for outdoor access now and for years to come.
WRA is committed to working toward a future where all our youth and communities across the West, regardless of their income, zip code, or historic inequities, have opportunities to experience the incomparable outdoor spaces of our region. By building off this success, we are helping to break down the barriers that stand between diverse and low-income communities and the lands and waters our region is known for, so that they can be enjoyed equally by all.