Connecting People to Nearby Nature: Albuquerque

Interview with Camilla and Cecilia, published in Sierra Club Outdoors
Brenna Muller and Katie Brantley

As the conservation of and access to public lands comes under threat nationally, the Sierra Club is expanding its work locally to connect people to nature through a number of local projects. The projects span the country and focus on breaking down barriers that prevent people from experiencing the outdoors. The new partnership projects are a continuation of the Sierra Club’s work to increase equitable access to nature, and to get more people unplugged and outside.

Meet Cecilia Chávez Beltrán and Camilla Feibelman who are leading Sierra Club’s efforts in Albuquerque to connect people to nearby nature.

Tell us a little about your community and Nearby Nature trails project.

Camilla: Albuquerque has always been a city of interest for the Nearby Nature program. It’s one of the only cities in the country that protected its riparian riverfront in an urban area. We have an area called the Bosque (which means forest in Spanish) and it’s a wooded area along the river that runs through Albuquerque (the Rio Grande). We also have the Sandia Mountains and as with the Bosque it’s 10 minutes from anywhere in the city. They’re called the Sandias (Spanish for watermelon) because when the sun sets over the west side the light reflects off the granite in the mountains and makes them look pink.

It’s an interesting city in the sense that it has nature so accessible. But at the same time it’s a city within a state that has a high level of poverty and a real lack of access to the outdoors. There’s a whole community of people who speak Spanish at home in New Mexico and we wanted to create a Spanish program based on our existing program that would allow people to access the outdoors in their first language.

Cecilia: This area, this Bosque, is literally a ten minute drive from our office to give you an idea of how close it is. It’s very accessible to everyone, you don’t have to pay–there are many ways to access it. As far as the community, Albuquerque is a very diverse place–we have 19 pueblos, this is one of the states that has the most Native American pueblos and people. So we are very aware that this is Native land. We have the Native Americans, the old Mexicans (the people who were here when this was still part of Mexico), and the new Mexicans who just recently crossed the border. We also have a very diverse refugee community–a couple of refugee groups have been coming in the past years. Because we’re a diverse community we like to welcome our brothers and sisters from elsewhere. We have the beautiful natural spaces and we have the beautiful diversity of people.

What are the most pressing obstacles that stand in the way of outdoor access and exploration in Albuquerque?

Cecilia: People of color, minorities, have less accessibility to free time, special equipment, outdoor clothing, transportation…they need to keep working and their busy lives do not even give them the time to even think of being outdoors. The people I’ve been reaching are hardcore workers and it’s not like they have an 8-5, Monday through Friday schedule. It’s definitely a challenge for people to try to squeeze in a couple of hours of nature into their schedule and that’s why it doesn’t happen naturally. And many of them work outdoors already so someone might think “I’ve been roofing 6 out of 7 days this week–why would I want to go outside again?”

So many people have not walked in the Bosque because they are busy, you know, surviving. But once our outings program, Excursiones a la Naturaleza de Nuevo Mexico, invites them and creates the opportunity with them, with their participation, then they are totally into it. The other thing is the language. There is a reason why this is promoted mostly in Spanish–we’re reaching out to people in their mother tongue. It’s a big relief, not to have to explain oneself. It allows you to have your senses open to other things–it creates an instant bond.

Camilla: If you’re working, plus taking care of kids, figuring out the windows of time between homework and family activities that you might have going on–it’s complicated. Another barrier is just feeling comfortable–knowing where to park, what to bring, where to walk. I think people sometimes think that somehow nature can be dangerous so giving people this sense of comfort is important.

What prompted you to pursue this project? Why is this project important to you and to your community?

Cecilia: I was hired to promote nature outings for Spanish-speaking people in the Albuquerque community. It started in June–it’s a new program, an experiment. Here we see the need to do something because we have so many Spanish speakers living in Albuquerque. The basic idea of Excursiones a la Naturaleza de Nuevo Mexico is to be able to enjoy nature, to promote the enjoyment of outings that are nearby, accessible, affordable, and do not require any kind of fancy equipment or clothes or anything. We have to remember, New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the country. So we are connecting people who have not had the chance to do so.

It’s important to me because language is important. I’m interested in making open communication available–I love when I can be a bridge for communication, and I love being able to share my love of nature with other people. If I can translate nature and language at the same time then that’s the perfect combination for me. If nature could be made accessible to everybody I think the world would be a better place.

Camilla: I had been kind of the founding staff person for the Puerto Rico chapter so we had gotten a strong outings program going there and had all the training material in Spanish so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel here in New Mexico.

Describe your Nearby Nature campaign and how it will provide access to green space and opportunities for environmental engagement in your community.

Cecilia: We’ve been able to do 5-7 walks along the Bosque in Spanish, English, and both languages. We offer a couple of hours of group walks where people can come, relax, put their cell phones away. The walks end up being filled with a lot of laughter and it’s not about overwhelming people with information like “how many cubic feet of water run each spring”. It’s mostly just reconnecting to nature at your own level as we walk, being mindful, and paying attention to small things like insects that go by and the clouds. It could be overwhelming to get too much information so we just talk about what we see around.

On one walk we saw alfalfa growing on the side of the path and one of the ladies recognized it because her grandma used to make alfalfa tea in the village she was from. She was excited to see it! And that gave us conversation, that gave us conversation for at least 15 minutes. Another lady said that she was reminded of the way that she and her father used to take walks along the fields in her town. We recently went on a hike into the mountains which was a lot of fun and people enjoyed going up to see the city from another perspective. I am not an expert but I have lived in this area for over 20 years and that’s all that is needed. On open walks sometimes I have complete strangers come on the walks and it’s great to see how immediately, organically, we all become a group. Once you start walking or hiking our goal is the same and that way of building community is very precious to me.

Camilla: We went to organizations that we felt we have an affinity with–ones that we felt were doing important work and that we thought could benefit emotionally from having access to nature. If you’re dealing with the stresses and concerns around immigration actions that the Trump administration is taking or working hard to get kids access to healthcare–whatever it might be–getting into nature could give you an opportunity to rest, recuperate, and have fun but also access a part of your city that might not necessarily feel accessible to you even if it’s right there.

The next thing that we’re starting, early next year, is a trails component. We were waiting for the new mayor to come in to do this–we want to work with signage, and even though it seems simple it would make a big difference. Pretty much any road that crosses the river has an access point to the Bosque and in each of those places there is a little dirt parking lot and sometimes a formal trail but often an informal trail. Almost none of those places has a sign that says “park here”, “trail here”, “Bosque here”–you have to just sort of know about it. So our proposal to the city will be to just get basic signage up to let people know it’s there.

One of the other complicating factors of this poor Bosque is that there are SIX government entities that have some role in the way it is managed so the smallest decisions can get fairly complex. That’s why when this last mayor tried to get development done in the area that we felt was pretty inappropriate it was hard to do much of anything. By some basic improving of people knowing what’s in the Bosque we can make it more accessible but we were never able to convince the outgoing administration of that.

Every project is different, tailor-made for the community that it serves. How does this project reflect the strengths, values, and interests of your community?

Cecilia: We started by inviting different nonprofit organizations–groups that already work with Spanish speakers–to do these pláticas. A plática is a Mexican or New Mexican idea that means you don’t give a presentation or show maps or anything like that, you basically just sit with people and listen to what they have to say. We asked them “If we were to go out for a walk with our families for exercise, for emotional recharging, where would you go or when could you go?” and people started sharing their ideas.

What is your vision for how this Nearby Nature investment can create lasting impact for the communities in which you live, play and serve? How do you hope to see your community grow and change with the implementation of this project?

Cecilia: I have already seen some changes. The first couple of times that we went out–a group of Spanish-speaking, immigrant women walking through the Bosque–runners and dog-walkers who passed us were surprised. They don’t expect to see a group of brown, middle aged women walking at 8:00am in the Bosque, you know? So what I try to do is engage some of them and ask them to take a photo of us, for example. I love doing that! It’s just to demonstrate, to prove, that community can be created at many different levels. And I am not afraid of them and they are not afraid of me. There is no reason to be in fear of someone who doesn’t look like me.

Camilla: The main thing for us is that we want every Albuquerquean to feel like they can access their Bosque and the Sandias. There’s an important figure in conservation history named Aldo Leopold who helped to found the Albuquerque Bosque as a protected area and he has a quote that essentially says the same thing. We just feel like it’s stressful times and if nature can serve as a place for people to get centered and have a good time with their families that’s something that we want to facilitate.

In what other ways is your chapter/group advancing equitable access to the outdoors?  

Camilla: We just elected a new, progressive mayor but for the last 8 years we had a mayor whose approach to our Bosque has been more development oriented. We’ve been working to engage people in protecting the Bosque and to educate people about how you can increase people’s use of the area without impacting it in a negative way. We feel that this new mayoral administration will mean that there are more opportunities to connect school kids and communities with the area.

Learn more about Sierra Club’s Nearby Nature initiative and our broader Outdoors for All work: sc.org/nearbynature

Brenna Muller is the Nearby Nature and Outdoors Alliance for Kids program manager for the Sierra Club.

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Katie is a Digital Storytelling Fellow with Sierra Club Outdoors.

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Photos by Cecilia Chávez Beltrán

Connecting People to Nearby Nature: Albuquerque