Max Trujillo caught the conservation bug during childhood summers spent with his father hunting, hiking and camping in the wilderness of northern New Mexico. In the years that followed, Trujillo noticed that many Hispanic families were out enjoying the woods, but they weren’t involved in the mainstream environmental movement.
“As a community, we’re grossly underrepresented, and we’ve allowed that (trend) to grow in the conservation arena,” Trujillo, who is now 50 and lives in Las Vegas, New Mexico, told me recently.
So two years ago, Trujillo helped found one of the first national Latino organizations dedicated to conservation in the southwest, HECHO (Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and Outdoors), with the goal of translating Latino outdoor enthusiasm into more direct action to protect public lands, particularly from the increase in oil and gas activity near wilderness areas.
Trujillo had a hunch that the avid outdoor recreation streak he was seeing among Hispanics might also point to strong conservationist leanings. To test that, HECHO conducted a poll of 200 Latinos of voting age in Colorado and New Mexico, which asked about their participation in activities like hunting and camping, as well as their views on energy development and public land protections. In June, HECHO posted some surprising results.
For one, a whopping 93 percent of those interviewed said they believe the government should protect public lands for recreation and the overall health of the environment. What’s more, the results spanned age demographics and party affiliation, a clear indication, says Trujillo, that for Latinos partisanship doesn’t play a role in how they value the land.
More than half the respondents—no matter their political affiliation—said they would like to see oil and gas companies prove their development won’t harm the environment or limit access to public land. These respondents said they would prefer a candidate who enforced such a view.
That’s especially significant given that over 40 percent of Latinos polled in both states acknowledge that natural gas extraction has the potential to create jobs.
Furthermore, the poll found that 77 percent supported a plan requiring oil companies to pay royalties on natural gas they burn in the extraction process in order to pay for pollution-mitigation efforts and to support conservation programs.
“It’s interesting,” said Maite Arce, the President of the Hispanic Access Foundation, “that given the diversity of the Hispanic community, support for conservation sees unanimous agreement.” And for candidates who want to court the Latino vote, it also makes the environment a potential issue.
HECHO and other Latino groups have already begun pushing for stronger protections for the nation’s waterways and are involved in efforts to stop a proposed dam on southern Gila River. Trujillo noted that it was involvement from the Hispanic community in Las Cruces, too, that helped secure the recent National Monument Designation for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in southern New Mexico.
Nationwide, the Latino population is growing, particularly in Western states like Colorado and New Mexico, making it an increasingly important political constituency. In New Mexico, for instance, Latinos account for 37 percent of the electorate, the highest proportion in any state.
And though many politicians have traditionally seen Latinos as a single, or dual-issue, voting block concerned mostly with immigration rights and jobs, HECHO’s survey indicates public lands protection is important to this growing group of voters as well.
That means to court the Latino vote, candidates will have to do more than talk about immigration.
“We’re not just a single issue community,” Arce said. “In the West especially, Latinos are deeply affected by water issues,” she said, adding that more than a third of Latinos in the U.S. live in states supplied with water by the Colorado River Basin.
As with other minorities, higher poverty rates and less access to resources mean that a disproportionate number of Latinos face the threat of polluted waterways. And nationwide Latino children have a 40 percent greater chance of dying of asthma, and almost half of all Latinos in the country live in one of the 25 most ozone-polluted cities in the country. That means Latino communities are hit harder by pollution-causing industries, making many people more conservative when it comes to, say, oil and gas development, Trujillo said.
All of that adds up to a wake-up call, he said. “Hispanics are going to be playing larger roles in every aspect of the U.S. economy, so (politicians) will have to engage us on many other levels. The environment will certainly be one of them.”
Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @tory_sarah.
This article was originally published in High Country News (hcn.org). The author is solely responsible for the content.