We here on the Central Coast know the importance of the outdoors to our quality of life, health, and the economy. My own family is indelibly tied to the Los Padres National Forest. Growing up, I spent long days on the Santa Ynez River, connecting with nature the way our family has for generations — socially and culturally.
Rep. Salud Carbajal (D) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D) are carrying the banner for us in Congress. They’ve introduced the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, and this past summer, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask Congress to pass this legislation protecting public lands on the California Central Coast. The Central Coast Heritage Protection Act would expand wildlands and rivers protections in Ventura, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties. Approximately 280,000 acres of land and 159 miles of rivers would include added protections for hiking, camping, and exploring. Many of these lands are near developed communities with less access to green space and are more accessible than national parks in the region. That’s incredibly important to all communities but especially under-resourced families.
I was born and raised in Santa Barbara. It is known to many as an affluent community, but those of us who grew up here know that the town is not an exception to economic disparities. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from rural Mexico to find work, and they made a life here, working hard servicing the town’s middle-class and wealthy residents. In Mexico, they had grown up surrounded by hillsides, rivers, and agricultural landscapes, and it was because of this resemblance to home and nostalgia that we often visited Los Padres National Forest.
During my youth, summer days were not spent in national parks or at summer camps; instead, we would pack up my dad’s work truck and head out for a weekend in Los Padres with other relatives. We spent time in the local swimming hole, exploring the area, and gathering for family dinners at the campsite while the sun would set over the Santa Ynez Valley. This would be where I had my first wild experiences that continued through most of my youth — my first deer sighting, my first river swim, my first camping experience, and so much more. It was a place our family and extended family could gather that was close, affordable, and provided something for all ages.
In my current role at Los Padres ForestWatch, I work to connect youth and families to the forest and to increase access to federally protected natural spaces for the enrichment of our communities and our economy, and to ensure that all people regardless of socio-economic background have access to wild places. Some of them come from under-resourced communities and are struggling with their academic performance, social harmony, and other areas of their well-being. Most have never had the opportunity to visit such places and I’m fortunate to witness the transformative power of our local mountains and rivers, and the effect it has on them. There are numerous benefits to low cost, nearby access to public lands. Research consistently shows that nature makes children smarter, healthier, and happier. Psychologists believe that experiencing awe from wild places can play an important part in bolstering happiness, health, and social harmony. It’s something every community around the world seeks out.
I support the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act because as someone who comes from a long lineage of Latin American and indigenous traditions, protecting the natural world is a moral obligation deeply rooted in my culture. Recent polls from Colorado College show that 75 percent of Latino voters in Western States want legislators to place more emphasis on protecting sources of clean water, air quality, and wildlife habit while providing opportunities to visit and recreate on our national public lands. Studies also show that 82 percent of Latinos in western states see public lands, such as national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife areas as an essential part of the economy. It confirms what I see every day from my position at Los Padres ForestWatch — that Latinos and other disparate communities care about public lands and want them protected.
My parents stressed to us the importance of cherishing our natural wealth. The sunsets cast long shadows of the trees, and those experiences have long helped make me who I am today. I want others to have access to similar experiences, whatever their socio-economic status is so that we can all feel the richness of nature.
In November, the House Committee on Natural Resources passed the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act (H.R. 2199), and it now moves to the full House and Senate for consideration. The bill’s advancement builds on momentum in Congress to permanently protect cherished landscapes and waters across the nation. Now more than ever, as residents of California’s Central Coast, we must act to express our support for the bill, and let our representatives know we want to see the region permanently protected.