Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement effort to address local ‘enviromental privilege’
EDWARDS — Natural beauty and outdoor opportunities surround us in Eagle County. But that doesn’t mean that everyone gets to enjoy them.
World class ski resorts and expansive wilderness areas define our valley. But economic disparity is also a defining feature of Eagle County and that characteristic has given birth to another reality — environmental privilege.
In the heart of the valley the hundreds of working people who reside in neighborhoods such as Eagle River Mobile Home Park, simply don’t have the same access to the outdoors that their neighbors enjoy. Some of the barriers are physical while others are cultural and a coalition of local organizations aims to address the issue through an effort called Eagle Valley Outside Movement.
In December, Eagle Valley Outside Movement received word that it had been awarded a $1.4 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO — Colorado Lottery funds) through the Inspire Initiative. The coalition — which includes Walking Mountains Science Center as the coordinating hub, Eagle County Public Health and Environment, Eagle County Schools, YouthPower365 and SOS Outreach —wants to provide equal access to outdoor opportunities for under served youth and families in Edwards.
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Gina Van Hekken, of Walking Mountains Science Center, noted the funding will address a variety of barriers to the outdoors, including lack of awareness of outdoor recreation opportunities, transportation, perceptions of risk and safety, time and costs associated with programs and equipment. What’s unique about this grant is that it will fund both projects and programs and Van Hekken said both are needed.
Asking the community what it wants
Van Hekken said that when it announced the Inspire Initiative grants, GOCO make it clear that the program wanted to see community driven projects. With those parameters in mind, Eagle Valley Outdoors Movement launched an outreach effort. Last May, Walking Mountains facilitated discussions at Eagle Valley and Battle Mountain high schools.
“We started with the kids to learn about how they are spending time outdoors,” Van Hekken said.
During the high school sessions last spring, the Walking Mountains staff asked students some specific questions including:
Where would your little brother or sister play outside or when you were younger where did you play outside?
Why did you go to that location? Were there other places you wanted to go when you were their age?
Where do you recreate outside now? Why?
What could be done differently in your neighborhood to make getting outside easier and more enjoyable?
What are the barriers, or what prevents you from spending time outside?
What would be the one factor that would help you access the outdoors? Why?
What are you spending time doing outside with your friends and family?
Do you know people that do not spend time outside? Why do you think that is?
What makes you feel uncomfortable about doing outdoor activities?
What do you like to spend time doing outside?
After completing the high school sessions, in June coalition members asked similar questions to elementary and middle school aged students who participated in youth engagement activities during YouthPower 365’s PwrHrs Summer program. What they found was a large discrepancy in outdoor experiences between kids who live in the west Edwards area and their counterparts both upvalley and downvalley.
That gave Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement a target neighborhood to highlight in its grant application. With the $1.4 million allocation, Van Hekken said the coalition will start addressing the issue in early 2018.
Programs and playgrounds
Part of the GOCO award will go toward playground improvements at the Eagle River Mobile Home Park, both south and north of U.S. Highway 6. It’s a much-needed project in the community.
As part of the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement effort, the coalition enlisted local high school students to make a video that highlights the environmental privilege issue. In that video, Edwards mobile home park resident Karely Duran, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years, talked about the existing play structures in the area.
“It’s still the exact same park from when I was small to now,” Duran said in the video. She talks about her desire to have a new, safe playground to enjoy with her son.
Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement’s plans for the new playgrounds include nature play areas and community gathering areas, a pump track and improved bike path access. But Van Hekken said that the Eagle Valley Outside Movement effort will extend beyond simply building a park and hoping children come. She noted the program will also work to find out why parents don’t let their kids go to the park and try to address those barriers. Then that effort will extend beyond developed play areas and into the great outdoors.
“The only way we are going to get at the cultural barriers is to involve the families,” said Van Hekken. “What we are very excited about is this will be a family-based program.”
Van Hekken said the organizations that comprise Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement already have strong ties to the community and are uniquely situated to provide support and learn about issues related to outdoors access for kids. Educational programs will be planned during the school day and during out-of-school hour with age-appropriate, outdoor learning and exploration opportunities for youth in preschool through 12th grade. In addition, the coalition partners will offer affordable programs to engage whole families. Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement will also provide internships and other leadership-development opportunities for high school students to apply learned outdoor skills and become leaders in the outdoors.
While the $1.4 million from GOCO is the foundation for Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement, Van Hekken noted that the participating entities are all investing in the effort. As they tackle the issue, the coalition members hope to develop a pilot program that can also benefit other communities.
And, in the end, Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement staunchly believes that making sure all Eagle County residents have the same ability to enjoy the natural wonders of this valley will bring all residents closer. As the final line in the previously mentioned high school video states, “Living here should be a unifying experience.”
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.