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Organizing for a Younger Generation

by Sophie Shemas

At our Public Lands Rally on February 1st, hundreds of New Mexicans stood shoulder to shoulder to stand up for our nation’s public lands. Hunters and anglers, young and old, united and gave voice to a movement to preserve our outdoor heritage. By the end of the day I was filled with renewed optimism and motivation—not only did I find strength in numbers, I found company and encouragement among the youth who attended.

That sort of representation isn’t common for a cause like ours. All too often, as a 22-year-old working in conservation, I find myself one of very few individuals at meetings and events who is under the age of forty. Compared to nonprofit and advocacy work in other realms, conservation and sportsman’s communities have largely fallen behind in engaging millennials—typically defined as the cohort of adults ages 18-34. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that only about 32% of millennials consider themselves ‘environmentalists’, a 7% drop from Generation X responses in 1999, yet over half said they would describe themselves as a supporter of gay rights. While millennials have taken up leadership in various social movements over the past few years, the rhetoric of the conservation movement has failed to resonate with this generation and produce the same level of consistent support.

Though there are plenty of potential explanations behind this phenomenon—and it’s a two-way street, of course—the momentum of our cause could easily fizzle out if we don’t actively attempt to mobilize younger New Mexicans and Westerners. There is already concern among the outdoor recreation industry about millennial participation in outdoor activities. Recent studies have shown that my generation tends to be less involved in outdoor recreation than previous generations, also evident through declines in the annual distribution of hunting and fishing licenses. According to a USA Today report from 2014, the number of people holding hunting licenses has been on a steady decline since 1983.

Rather than being bogged down in the blame game and the countless debates about concepts like Nature Deficit Disorder, our organization recognizes the current approach is out-of-date. To maintain and grow our representation on sportsmens and conservation issues in the coming decades, we must challenge not only the framework of our own outreach to young adults, but other like-minded organizations as well. Millennials are the next generation of conservation leaders and the future voice of sportsmen and women in our country, so their involvement in our work is crucial to the preservation of our outdoor heritage.

Though our priorities may differ, the internet age has molded members of my generation into a powerful force for generating change on social, environmental, and economic issues. As outdoor enthusiasts face growing hostility toward our public lands, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation is working to establish partnerships with higher education institutions and young professionals across the state to amplify our message and spark new interest in celebrating and protecting our outdoor heritage. We must share the outdoor spaces we hold dear with this new generation and bridge this gap in order to revitalize the spirit of the conservation movement.

Without the next generation on board, who will carry the torch in the years to come?

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of the Outdoor Reporter.