Juan Palma grew up near some of the most spectacular places in the West, with the volcanic peaks of Mt. Adams and Rainier never far from the horizon in Washington state’s Yakima Valley.
But as a young boy from a large family of migrant farmworkers, it never occurred to him that he could easily head off into the mountains that rose up in the distance.
“I didn’t know it was public,” he said. “It was beyond my world.”
The former head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) state office recounted his boyhood impressions during a Nov. 7 hike to Delicate Arch, as a group of school-aged children from Moab rushed up the trail ahead of him.
Palma organized the four-hour trip with the hope that it will strengthen the students’ connections to public lands. It was the first of several planned outings that the now-retired civil servant will lead in his new role as the chief conservation officer of HECHO, which stands for “Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors.”
With the help of the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, the National Park Service, Rim Tours and Canyonlands Field Institute, Palma set out to get the students fired up about the outdoors at a young age.
It turned out that this particular group of young hikers needed no introduction to Arches: All of them had been to the park beforehand, and some of them could easily describe the sights that lie beyond each twist and turn along the Delicate Arch trail.
Based upon Palma’s experiences over the years, though, they do not necessarily represent the majority of young Latinos. If many of their peers think about the outdoors at all, Palma said, they tend to think of parks in urban areas.
While Hispanic residents from places like New Mexico and south-central Colorado have had deep ties to the surrounding land for generations, Palma believes that a cultural divide remains. For immigrants from some countries in Central and South America, he said, the concept of public lands is a “completely foreign” idea.
As the country’s demographics change and the Hispanic population surges toward 100 million, he believes that Washington, D.C.-based HECHO’s mission is more important than ever.
“We really want to be able to expose Latino kids to our public lands,” he said.
Palma himself was approaching 30 before he had any inkling that he could work and play outdoors across much of the West.
One day, a green truck that was heading off into the Oregon desert piqued his interest, so he asked the occupants what they did for a living. They told him that they worked for an agency called the U.S. Forest Service.
“That was my first exposure to public lands management,” he said. “I thought it was really intriguing that you could work outside.”
The chance encounter kick-started his career with the Forest Service in Oregon and Montana – first as a typist and budget analyst, and eventually as an administrator and supervisor. He later became the executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in California and Nevada, and ultimately made the move to the BLM, serving as the director of the agency’s Utah state office up until early 2015.
In all of those years, Palma said, he cannot recall any interactions on the job with ordinary Latino citizens.
“I got to thinking about my career,” he said. “I made a checklist … I couldn’t remember a time when a Latino person or a Latino organization came to me as a manager and said, ‘We have a problem for you to solve.’”
More often than not, he said, he heard from two kinds of stakeholders who often dominate the discussions about public land: those who want to develop it, and those who want to protect it forever.
“They were either industry people wanting a mine or more grazing, or more of the environmental folks saying, ‘Don’t do it,’” he said. “That was kind of my life.”
Well, not entirely.
When he wasn’t on the job, Palma placed a high premium on outdoor activities with his family. His three grown sons are now “big-time” duck hunters who grew up outdoors, and Palma continues to instill his love for the land in younger generations by taking his seven grandkids on adventures around the West.
That’s exactly the kind of life that Palma envisioned for himself when he stepped down from the BLM and set off with his wife for Hawaii.
At first, he made a point of turning the television off, and he stopped reading newspapers. But his plans for a quiet retirement changed when HECHO’s representatives approached him and asked him to write a column about his experiences as a public lands manager. From there, the discussions continued, and over time, they convinced him to sign on as their chief conservation officer.
Palma eventually agreed because he supports the group’s work to further the discussion about public policy issues, such as the BLM’s proposed Master Leasing Plan for hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands in southern Grand and northern San Juan counties. He said he wants Hispanic workers in Moab’s service sector to understand just how closely their livelihoods are tied to outdoor recreation on nearby public lands.
“Their jobs really do depend on a vibrant tourism economy,” he said.
Fruita, Colorado, resident Jerry Otero visited Arches for the first time when he was in the fourth grade, and he hopes those who followed in his footsteps this month will grow to share his love of the outdoors.
“It becomes natural when you get outside,” he said.
Canyonlands Field Institute fall program intern Kirstin Waldkoenig, who joined the hike alongside Rim Tours guide Brooks Carter, said her group was thrilled by the invitation to accompany Palma and the kids.
“It’s so nice to be out on a community outing,” she said. “These kids are so energetic and inspired.”
“We see this as very important work, and we hope to create more opportunities and partnerships like this in the future,” she added.
Palma is ready to accept that invitation: HECHO is already planning a number of group hikes with young people in the St. George area, the San Rafael Swell and the Wasatch Front.
While those activities are aimed at young Hispanics, Palma ultimately supports efforts by U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the Obama administration to encourage young people in general to step away from their plugged-in worlds and head into the backcountry.
“I think that as a general statement, all kids need to get outdoors; all kids need to have that connection to our public lands,” he said.