Latino Outdoors Interview: A Conversation with Luis Guillermo Benitez

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Tell us your story, what is your connection to the land and conservation?

My connection to lands and conservation started as a young boy in Ecuador. My father’s family all grew up on a ranch outside of Quito and that is where I also spent most of my childhood. I was taught at a very early age if you take care of the land it will also take care of you.

How is this connection celebrated? How is it understood or misunderstood in our community and culture—as well as in the broader conservation community?

This connection is celebrated in my community and culture mostly by being outside! But in the larger conservation community I think we have a responsibility to ask ourselves some larger questions. The Latino culture has always faced challenges with accessing some of our outdoor resources in Colorado. They are a huge resource here in our state and when you start to ask the question of what access could or should be, I think access is trying to understand if there is a better way to approach permitting and access on federal lands because when you think about it, for smaller rural towns, that access translates into economic development opportunities. When it comes to workforce training, within the outdoor industry the path to a functioning and usable education can sometimes be a bit disjointed. We are exploring everything from trail building to advanced manufacturing and trying to assess if there is a way to codify some of these amazing skill sets into a quantifiable education.

Latino identities are connected to the outdoors, the environment, and conservation—how are those words reflective of YOU and how is it expressed?  

I will always remember as a young boy in Ecuador, my Tío took me to a hillside overlooking our family’s ranch and told me that wherever I went and whatever I did with my life that this tierra, this land, will always be a part of me and be there for me. That gave me a tremendous sense of place and of pride. I feel that our culture and community here in Colorado also has that sense of place and pride. It is a feeling of home and of what is possible.

What needs to change and how do we grow, celebrate, and have the broader conservation movement connect with the role and values Latinos bring to the field?

If you look at the current demographics, Latino/Chicano culture will be the predominant cultures of our state in the near future. We need to understand from an education perspective what we are doing to engage the next generation of adventurers and conservationists. I share this with most people I talk to: EVERYONE needs to have a succession plan! Who will replace me? You? What will their passions be? Their education? How will we make conservation important to them? I feel that it is the connection to the lands we recreate on and utilize that will be an important first step.

Luis Benitez. Photo by Didrik Johnck.

Luis Benitez. Photo by Didrik Johnck.

Why does this issue and work matter to you?

It matters to me because the outdoor industry in Colorado has given me so much. It has given me a community, an education, a job, and a purpose. It has allowed me to connect who I am with what I get to do every day. Imagine if more people felt that sense of purpose and tenacity, what our world could be.

What does success in all of this look like to you? 

Success to me looks like more of us out there in the workforce within the outdoor industry. I used to joke with other Latino friends that conservation was left up to people who worked the lands directly, and not people in the city. I think success will be when everyone understands how interconnected the lands and our cities really are. How important green space is to a culture and a community.

 

How has your work with the current office of Outdoor Recreation been reflective of all this?

I have 4 primary goals for my office here in Colorado:

  1. 1. Economic Development:Understand who is here and who isn’t here. If we can help companies move here or existing companies that are growing relocate within the state, that plays a huge part in the health and viability of the industry within the state. Also, try to help companies that may be struggling. Ensure that people remain connected to this amazing community the outdoor industry offers within Colorado. Sometimes this help comes in the shape of fiscal help with tax credits or incentives, sometimes it is simply ensuring that people are connecting to those best positioned to help. I believe this should apply to for-profit and nonprofit companies alike.
  2. Conservation and Stewardship ( Access ):We have to take care of the product that allows us to HAVE viable businesses and lands to recreate on. I truly believe there is a better way to allow access to our federal lands. As individual users, Colorado has access that is unmatched in most other states, but when it comes to trying to start an outfitter and/or potentially a wilderness education school, or a mountain bike guide service, basically anything that requires permitting, it is incredibly hard. My goal is to help start this conversation for Colorado at a state and hopefully federal level to see if we can’t have a different conversation about access.
  3. Education: I mentioned before we have a Ski Area Management degree here in Colorado. What about a Trail Building Degree? Advanced Sewing for Outdoor Apparel? Advanced Manufacturing? The possibilities are limitless. This also ties into what we are doing for the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts. We have to understand the legacy we are leaving and the support structure we are creating to empower the next generation with the great ideas to rise up and thrive. We need to focus on the demographics of our state, and the power that holds.
  4. Industry Anchors:I call this goal Industry Anchors because these are some of the things that anchor industry sectors in our state. We have the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, among other amazing companies whose headquarters are here. How can we impact those that are here and thinking about coming here? Not to mention industry trade shows and large events like the GoPro Mountain games. Colorado is a nexus for disruptive innovation within the outdoor industry; I want to ensure that stays anchored here in Colorado for decades to come.

A final thought…

If you truly are willing to challenge yourself, you can change your world.

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Luis Guillermo Benitez is the Director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. He is also one of the more experienced and respected professional guides in the outdoor field and leadership development. He has summited the top of the famed “Seven Summits” 32 times, including being a six-time summiteer of Mt. Everest.

This post was originally posted on La Madre Tierra. Check out LMT for more work on amplifying the Latino narrative and voices supporting our public lands. 

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