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Latinos in Connecticut Working To Protect Our Environment

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Photo credit: Kelsey Mackey.

Bill Sarno/CTLatinoNews.com

Ivette Lopez, a Californian who went to Yale, now calls Connecticut home and she is now working to protect its environment.   In July, she will lead several dozen Latino families from New Haven to one of her favorite East Coast spots, Outer Island, the outermost of the Thimble Islands off Branford, and part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.

This will be the second year that Lopez, an intern with the nonprofit Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF), will accompany Latinos to this protected environmental resource along Long Island Sound as part of the annual Latino Conservation Week, one of the yearly highlights of her urban outreach work with  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Several of the ten McKinney refuge sites are not far from the southern Connecticut cities where many Hispanics reside, but there are barriers that may keep this population from enjoying the outdoors and conservation. In the case of Outer Island, getting to this protected wildlife preserve is complicated because of its off-shore location, but there are other refuges more easily accessed.

However, a bigger problem can be a disconnect that persists because of insufficient outreach into a burgeoning Spanish-speaking population about the opportunities for experiencing these public lands and services,, according to the Hispanic Access Foundation,

There also can be a sense of trepidation among people new to Connecticut. When Lopez leads immigrant groups to a site such as Outer Island, there often is some initial trepidation and a bit of “oh my god” anxiety. “Are we allowed to be here?” and “is this open to the public?” are some of the questions that she encounters.

The Hispanic Access Foundation helped launch Latino Conservation Week in 2014 with the cooperation of numerous Hispanic and environmental advocacy groups, such as the Hispanic Federation and League of Conservation Voters, both active in Connecticut. Initially, HAF conducted 17 Latino Conservation Week activities, mostly in the West. This number has grown steadily and about two years ago, the Washington, D.C. based foundation and its partners started hosting events along the East Coast, Lopez said. HAF also selected Lopez and several other young Latinos to serve as interns at wildlife refuges such as McKinney and the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey.

The trip to Outer Island and the 120 other Latino Conservation Week activities scheduled to take place across the nation July 14 to 22 represent just a small part of a growing movement to connect Latinos with the opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities at public lands and, as HAF states, to “enjoy good physical health and a healthy natural environment.” Another important thrust of these programs is that Latinos, who will comprise about one-third of the U.S. population by mid-century, will need to play a greater role as stewards in the protection of the environmental resources that are important to everyone.

HAF is not alone in this movement. A few years ago it helped establish the Latino Conservation Alliance  with the GreenLatinos, Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO), the Hispanic Federation, La Madre Tierra and Latino Outdoors. This partnership uses the members organizational strengths to “highlight the importance of conserving our natural heritage for Latino communities.

Moreover, the involvement of non-Hispanic groups has been welcomed since the start of Latino Conservation Week. “While this week is designed to highlight Latinos, we want it to be as inclusive as possible;  all are welcome to participate and organizations are welcome to design their own event,” said Maite Arce, president and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation, in a press release. Last year, the groups involved included the REI, Audubon Society, Latino Outdoors, Save the Redwoods League, George H.W. Bush Vamos a Pescar Education Fund, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.

What coalition members and other advocacy groups have found is that Latinos traditionally enjoy outdoor activities and have an affinity for environmental activism that, to a large extent, is connected to public lands. “Latinos believe clean water, clean air, access to green spaces and other environmental issues are important to the well-being of Hispanic communities nationally,” according to Hispanic Federation research.

While Lopez was attending Yale, where she studied geology, geophysics and Spanish, the San Jose, California native applied for one of the new HAF internships which had been set up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She learned that she had been accepted three days after receiving her bachelor of science degree from Yale and headed east on Route 95, took the Westbrook exit and reported to the McKinney main office, which is in a  home once visited by Eleanor Roosevelt and later donated to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lopez joined a six-person staff that oversees the refuges string of beach, marsh and island preserves. In addition to setting up Latino Conservation Week, the New Haven resident visits local schools to foster an awareness of the opportunities for outdoor engagement that are nearby.

During the spring, Lopez, who is fluent in Spanish, spent a day at Outer Island with a group of bilingual sixth-graders from schools in New Haven’s Fair Haven section as part of Southern Connecticut State University’s Owl for a Day Program, which brings the college experience to potential future students.

Faculty from SCSU and Central Connecticut State University coordinate educational and research activities at the research outpost on Outer Island as part of a partnership between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Connecticut State University system

The Latino Conservation Week group which Lopez will take to the refuge is being assembled with the help of two New Haven area organizations: the Junta for Progressive Action and the Leadership, Education and Athletic Partnership (LEAP).

While there is no charge to visit McKinney sites, there are restrictions on access by motorized watercraft to Outer Island. To bring her groups to the refuge, Lopez works with a Thimble Islands  ferry service based in the Stony Creek section of Branford. “Transportation costs something,” she said, “but we try to make the refuge accessible.”

For the Latino Conservation Week tour, which runs from about 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.,  the Fish and Wildlife Service helps with the transportation expense and the visitors are provided with juices and snacks, but are urged to bring their own lunches.

From past experience, Lopez expects that upon arriving on Outer Island some of the participants may be a bit nervous and even scared, but only temporarily. This fear quickly changes to excitement, the native Californian said, and within 30 minutes “they jump into the activities.”

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