In Colorado, 23.7 million acres (36% of the state) are federally owned and managed public land. Another 2.8 million acres are owned and managed by the state land board. Local parks and open space represent hundreds of thousands of additional protected acres. Coloradans and visitors enjoy the state’s abundant outdoor recreation resources. More than 75% of Colorado’s residents recreate outdoors on a weekly basis, and recreational activity (including tourism) is estimated to generate annual revenues of $10 billion and support 107,000 jobs. However, as both local and tourist populations grow, increased use is permanently damaging the natural areas that are so beloved. The continuing popularity of outdoor recreation in Colorado is a boon to the economy, but impacts continue to outstrip the management capabilities of cash-strapped public land management agencies and their partner nonprofits, resulting in more long-term damage to public lands.
The state’s demographics are also changing as the population ages, grows more diverse and more urban. The population segment that has historically been most concerned with stewardship and protection of natural resources is aging and shrinking. At the same time, dramatic cuts are being made to federal and state land management budgets. Most public land managers now lack the resources and capacities necessary to be effective stewards. The future health of the state’s public and protected lands is ensured only to the degree that our residents understand their role as stewards. Increasingly, this role requires residents to participate directly on the ground in stewardship activities and to be advocates for these public resources. Stewardship can also provide an important “gateway experience” for children and young adults, potentially leading to longer-term support and a better understanding of the state’s natural resources.
Colorado has a strong existing network of these types of organizations as compared with other states. Examples include Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the Colorado Youth Corps Association, multiple “Friends of . . . “ organizations, etc. in both rural and urban areas.
The Foundation’s Stewardship at Scale program supports efforts that engage residents, including youth and diverse populations, at a significant scale in the care of natural resources throughout Colorado. Gates works with key partners to develop the tools, information, and capacities necessary to expand the scale of stewardship activity statewide. The Foundation is also interested in efforts to support job training and employment opportunities that create pathways to new engagement with the outdoors, such as those being developed by community partnerships through Great Outdoors Colorado’s “Inspire!” programs statewide. Broadly, success at scale will be achieved through an increase in partnerships and collaborations that result in a much larger and more diverse statewide network of stewards that help to meet the needs of Colorado’s threatened outdoor spaces and wild places. Success would also engage the next generation of stewards, statewide.