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Andrea Ramos and her family were reeling from the effects of the pandemic when they joined a group in Avon in 2020 that got them out of their house and hiking.

Before then, Ramos and her family struggled to get outdoors. As a native Spanish speaker, she found it difficult to find low-cost outdoor activities offered in her language in Eagle County, and she struggled to find accessible programs for her daughter who has cerebral palsy.

When she joined Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement, a coalition working to get people from underrepresented groups outdoors, she began hiking and snowshoeing with her children during the winter and mountain biking with them during the summer. 

The organization runs free or low-cost programs and offers gear for participants who need it, she said. Nearly all of EVOM’s programs are provided in Spanish, Ramos said.

“It is very important for your mental health,” she said through a translator on Oct. 2. “We as moms have certain days during the month that we can set aside to be able to go outside and enjoy the outdoors. It’s a benefit that EVOM is able to provide this.” 

LEFT: Andrea Ramos with her daughter, Jimena, during a nature walk Monday in Avon. “She can smell the difference,” her father, Mario, said of his 10-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy. RIGHT: Johana Ramos, left, takes pictures with her sister, Julissa, and her mother, Andrea. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

TOP: Andrea Ramos with her daughter, Jimena, during a nature walk Monday in Avon. “She can smell the difference,” her father, Mario, said of his 10-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy. BOTTOM: Johana Ramos, left, takes pictures with her sister, Julissa, and her mother, Andrea. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Efforts to expand access to the outdoors have been growing over the past few years in Colorado, and outdoor equity groups have been finding new sources of funding and are receiving more recognition for running those initiatives.

But many of these affinity groups, such as Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Afro and Outdoor Asian are concentrated on the Front Range, and people in rural areas who are interested in getting involved struggle to access outdoor equity programs because they don’t live in a major city, said Bianka Martinez, equity and outreach coordinator and youth programs coordinator at the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association.

More density in cities often leads to higher participation rates. People in cities tend to be higher wage earners when compared to their rural counterparts, which can make it easier for them to travel to or pay for outdoor activities. And it often feels there are more funding streams for outdoor recreation programs located in cities, where people who are a part of underrepresented groups in the outdoors tend to live, said Martinez, who lives and works in Salida.

“There just seems to be a lack of focus on nonurban areas when increasing equity in the outdoors, and while these things are difficult to create to the size that I think has existed in Denver, in Colorado Springs and other major metropolitan areas, we’re out here, too, and we deserve that, too,” she said. “But I think one of the biggest things, honestly, even more so than finding gear or building skill is just being comfortable in these outdoor settings and also where your education is coming from.”

People of color, people with disabilities, people who speak English as a second language, the LGBTQ community and lower income Coloradans have long been underrepresented in the outdoors. 

More people are getting outside

Skiers during the National Brotherhood of Skiers week at Vail ski area Feb. 8 in Vail. The annual National Brotherhood of Skiers attract more diverse skiers and snowboarders to mountains.” (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The outdoor recreation participant base grew 2.3% in 2022 to a record 168 million people, or 55% of the U.S. population ages 6 and older, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2023 Outdoor Participation Trends report.

Outdoor recreation also became more diverse in 2022 with increases in participation by Black, Latino and LGBTQ people. People ages 55 and older are becoming more active and now represent 1 in every 5 outdoor participants, according to the report.

The participation rate for Latino people in the outdoors climbed to 56% in 2022 from 34% in 2015, the highest average annual growth rate for any group over the past five years, according to the report.

Black people continue to have the lowest participation rate in outdoor recreation, but their rate of getting outside has increased in each of the past five years. Their participation rate increased to 40.7% in 2022 from 38.6% in 2021, according to a research director who helped compile the report. 

Despite the gains, people of color are still underrepresented in the outdoors and the industry must make more of an effort to maximize inclusivity, the report says.

Some of Colorado’s Latino people are living in the middle of outdoor meccas and yet they still aren’t spending much time outdoors.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is among the groups looking to change the face of recreation, and its Outdoor Equity Grant is a statewide effort to expand access to the outdoors for communities that have been excluded from conventional recreation and conservation activities.

The fund was created by Next 100 Colorado, a coalition working to make public lands more inclusive. The legislation that created the Outdoor Equity Grant program was signed in 2021.

In its first report, Colorado Parks and Wildlife wrote that it used Colorado Lottery proceeds to award $3.1 million to 69 organizations across the state in 2022. All of those 69 programs are working to increase equity in the outdoors.

Inspiring the Latino outdoor community

DACA recipient and Summit County resident Javier Pineda, founder of OSO Outdoors, bundles up during his routine morning walk Thursday on Loveland Pass. OSO Outdoors in Summit County offers free snowboarding lessons to adults, with instructors speaking Spanish. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

One of the coalitions that received funding from Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s outdoor equity grant was Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement, the one Ramos still participates with.

More than 95% of the group’s participants are part of the Latino community, said Renata Araujo, Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement manager. Just over half of all enrolled students in Eagle School District are Latino and 29.5% of the county’s residents are Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Most participants are descendants of immigrants or migrated to Colorado. And for many of those families, days are often the same. 

“The adults go to work, they go home and the kids study and go to school,” said Estefania Godoy Vizcarra, bilingual marketing and outreach coordinator for Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement.

“We noticed that there was a loss of this family bonding time, which is why programs like these are so important because now families have the access and transportation to events that are completely planned at a time that’s useful for them,” she said.

The coalition organizes about 15 events every month during the summer and slightly fewer programs during the winter, with activities including fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, train rides, zip lining, snowmobiling, snow tubing, gardening and kite flying.

The biggest wins for the coalition so far have been seeing programs sell out as more participants get involved and getting more families outside during the winter to help fight against a misconception that the outdoors is only welcoming or enjoyable during the summer, Godoy Vizcarra said.

Maite Loyola, who lives in Edwards, got involved with Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement a year ago when she moved to Colorado from Querétaro, Mexico. She was already an avid outdoorswoman, but the coalition helped her and her family find new hidden gems nearby in Colorado.

“To me, being in contact with nature is very fulfilling,” she said through a translator. “Just having that harmony and feeling the breeze outside is something that helps me be happy.”

Less than an hour away, there’s an effort to get the Latino community outside and onto the ski slopes in Summit County. OSO Outdoors’ flagship snowboarding program began last year with funding from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife outdoor equity grant and another from The Summit Foundation. The OSO Outdoors program is run by the nonprofit Mountain Dreamers.

It helps diversify the snow sports industry by bringing the Latino immigrant community to Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, said Javier Pineda, founder and program coordinator for OSO Outdoors.

The OSO Outdoors snowboarding pilot program last year mainly focused on adults and families. After doing an analysis of the existing programming in Summit County, OSO Outdoors found many low-cost options for youth wanting to learn to snowboard, but after people turn 18, there are no other programs in the area to help adults get on the slopes.

“Skiing and snowboarding is literally in our veins and is part of our culture in Summit County, but it’s not really reflected on the slopes,” he said.

To offer a unique program, OSO Outdoors focused on breaking barriers to entry for adults, and offered three free snowboarding lessons for 16 participants in English and Spanish, Pineda said.

Interest was high, so he hopes to increase the number of participants to 40 this winter. The main focus is serving first-time learners, but as the program grows, OSO Outdoors will help people get discounted season passes to hone their skills, he said.

The lack of representation of Latinos in the outdoors has made participants apprehensive about getting on a snowboard, Pineda said. 

“Some participants have gone through traumatic experiences in their home countries and are therefore afraid of being outside,” he added. “Education and fostering a welcoming environment can really make the difference.”

Skiing and snowboarding is literally in our veins and is part of our culture in Summit County, but it’s not really reflected on the slopes.

— Javier Pineda, founder and program coordinator for OSO Outdoors

Snowboarding has helped Pineda disconnect from life’s challenges and demands, and the outdoors has provided a therapeutic environment for him over the years. 

All the OSO Outdoors participants, so far, are local and work in the hospitality industry, and their financial future depends on great snow and tourists, he said.

“But we also need to balance it with some fun,” he added. “Our winters are very long and very depressing if you don’t do any outdoor activities. The future of the sport is not only dependent on youth, but on collective effort from whole families.”

Teaching hunters of color

Outdoor affinity groups in rural areas face unique operational challenges and so do the ones running in urban areas, said Jimmy Flatt, co-founder and chief operating officer for Hunters of Color, a national organization working to make the face of hunting proportional to the racial demographics of Americans.

It’s easier to recruit people into the Hunters of Color community when events are hosted in urban centers. However, people in cities tend to be more detached from food systems compared to people in rural areas, who often drive by farms and cattle ranches on their routes each day. It has been challenging to diversify a form of recreation that is predominantly white and involves guns and other weapons, he said.

Hunting is a way for people to become independent of factory-farmed foods and celebrate diverse cultures and food sovereignty, he said. It connects humans to their ancestral traditions and is the best way to procure meat, Flatt added.

A 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report showed 4% of the nation hunts, and 97% of those participants identified as white.

“The main barriers are access to information and land,” Flatt said. “And mentorship is the solution to those problems.”

Gunnison is the most rural place in Colorado where Hunters of Color has an ambassador, an organizer who leads community events and helps participants get involved with hunting and outdoor recreation. The organization also hopes to find an ambassador to engage participants on the Front Range, where its participants have expressed interest in more programming, Flatt said.

Karl Terrell skins up during the uphill race at Vail ski area Feb. 8 in Vail. According to the 2021-22 National Ski Area survey, 88% of skiers are white and 1.5% are Black (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Salif Mahamane, the Colorado ambassador for Hunters of Color and associate professor of psychology at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, said it can be difficult to lure Front Range hunters to his community for events.

“It’s harder to access the populations of the people I’d love to see, but what counters that argument is this is a place that abounds in hunting opportunities,” he said. 

Gunnison County is mostly composed of public lands and elk outnumber residents, for example, he said. 

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“It makes sense for people to come out here because the richness of the experience has a potential to be very high even though it may be logistically a bit more difficult,” he said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife does not issue licenses by city or county. It issues licenses by game management units, or GMUs, which do not line up with city or county lines, said Joseph Livingston, public information officer of the southwest region for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

There are an estimated 15,710 elk in game management units 53, 54, 55, 63 and 551, which make up most of Gunnison County.

And people do hunt there successfully. For example, in 2022, an estimated 2,266 hunters harvested 573 elk in game management unit 54, which comprises central Gunnison County, a 25% success rate, he said.

But when Hunters of Color hosted a shooting range and firearms introduction safety day in Gunnison in May, just eight people attended. One was from Denver, three were from Salida and four were from Gunnison Valley, Mahamane said.

The overarching goal of the Hunters of Color program is to create a welcoming space for people of color to learn safe hunting practices from someone they can identify with, Mahamane said.

Organization leaders hope that once people become confident hunters, they’ll return as mentors and policy advocates, Flatt said.

Engaging the entire family unit

Outdoor Equity Summit attendees hike near the Colorado Mountain College in Leadville on Sept. 16. Get Outdoors Leadville hosts the event with the goal of cultivating a more inclusive environment in outdoor spaces. (Chloe Anderson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One of the benefits of running an outdoor equity group in a rural community is the small-town feel. It doesn’t take much time to make an impact on the tight-knit community and access between partner organizations is easier than working in many urban areas, said Ann Marie Beresford, executive director at the Adaptive Sports Association, a Durango organization providing accessible outdoor, sport and recreation activities for people with disabilities.

“In a town like Durango, and in a lot of mountain towns, people choose to live in these places because they love the outdoors and value getting outside and the positive impacts it can have,” she said. “And they also value getting other participants outside with them.”

Organizations in many mountain towns have helped skiers and snowboarders adapt to their challenges. The Adaptive Sports Association takes participants and their loved ones kayaking, fishing and rafting during the summer, and during the winter, the Adaptive Sports Association operates a ski and snowboarding school.

The program was enticing as soon as Kristin Smith discovered it online. When she moved to Colorado 11 years ago, she was searching for accessible programs that would keep her son active and busy. The association was the only organization in town at the time offering outdoor recreation for people with disabilities, she said.

Asher, now 19, was born with a physical and intellectual disability and has spent years on the river with the outdoor group and now skiing is his favorite sport. He’s a sit-skier, his mother said, meaning he uses an accessible ski shaped like a sled, which allows him to move alongside his family and friends.

“It really solidifies our involvement as a family,” Smith said. “If someone had to stay at home with him while the others went out to play, we’re not going to be as connected to our community or each other as a family. But with Adaptive Sports, we don’t have to make a choice. We can choose to go as a family and we always do.”

He doesn’t have a diagnosis for his disability. Doctors believe he has a genetic syndrome that has never been identified. He uses a wheelchair and a walker to support his weak muscles, and cognitively, he’s closer to ages 3 to 5, his mother said.

“We call it ‘Asher Syndrome’ because it’s so unique to him,” she said. 

“It’s overwhelming sometimes when you have a loved one who has a disability. You watch everyone else go out and it’s so easy for them to just put on their hiking shoes and hop on a trail, and it takes a little bit more thought and planning to get Asher up to a trailhead or to a spot where we’re going biking, but it’s so worth it every single time,” she said.

The Adaptive Sports Association increases physical and mental health for participants and helps create a supportive community for people who have traditionally faced many barriers to accessing the outdoors, Beresford said. 

“And when you start to break down barriers and allow people to experience challenges and success, you see that translate into other aspects of their lives.”

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Colorado Trust. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco....