This time of year, it’s easier to adventure on Netflix than come up with a reason to experience the outdoors. But Mauricia Baca and her team have a simple charge for couch potatoes, and everybody else: “Get outside, Las Vegas!”
Outside Las Vegas Foundation’s mission of connecting people to their surroundings—and each other—is much bigger than simply getting them to step out the front door. Working with local and state government, community groups, neighborhoods, schools and corporations, OLVF is tackling everything from health and wellness issues to traffic congestion and pollution. How? By leading the charge to link the Valley with trails, educating people about outdoor opportunities and amenities, fostering a love of wild places through workshops and creating online resources to help get us out there. Who couldn’t use this kind of push off the couch?
You have quite a diverse background, from working as a trial attorney for the Department of Justice and as a community organizer in New York City to a stint with Nevada’s Nature Conservancy. How did you end up leading Outside Las Vegas? My predecessor at OLVF, Alan O’Neill, reached out to me to see if I might be interested in taking over the reins from him. I loved the idea of working for a small, locally based nonprofit. Moreover, the mission really resonated with me ... the idea of connecting people to our outdoor places. At the end of the day, people protect what they love and value. Outside Las Vegas Foundation brings together the idea that our outdoor places are special and worthy of care and respect with the idea that these places are of incredible value for our community.
OLVF’s sponsor list, from Weight Watchers to REI, seems to cover why getting outside is important. There are common threads that weave together all of our sponsors—the recognition that people need outdoor experiences, that community is important, and these outdoor places are critical for our community. People of all ages need parks and trails for so many reasons—health, education and the basic joy of being outside. When it comes to health, the simplest thing you can do is put on a pair of comfortable shoes and go for a walk. Add in being on a trail or in a park, and you get a great experience that is fun and that makes you healthier. In a state where 35 percent of kindergartners are overweight or obese, this is important. When it comes to education, our trails and parks are tremendous outdoor classrooms—botany, ecology, history, geology—you can see them all illustrated. These are places that bring textbooks to life and can inspire imagination. Add in the fact that being outside has been shown to help with attention deficit disorder and improve focus, and you have a real recipe for success for our youth.
What about those who have trouble thinking about Las Vegas as anything other than an urban center? The key is to connect people to these experiences. Southern Nevada has over 1,000 miles of trails, thousands of acres of local parks, and millions of acres of public lands. Southern Nevada is an incredible place to live, work and play—and our outdoor places are a critical part of that experience.
Your Park of the Week web feature shines a light on the differences between “outside” and most people’s conception of “nature.” How does this distinguish your organization from others we might think of like the Sierra Club? We want people to find their piece of nature. For some in more urban areas, this can be a park or a trail that runs through a neighborhood. In that park and on that trail, you can still connect with nature ... you can sit under a tree, watch the birds, check out lizards crawling, see desert plants. And the important thing is that these are incredibly accessible experiences. ... For some people, parks and trails lead them to explore larger landscapes … they branch out to Lake Mead, Mount Charleston, Red Rock Canyon, or the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. Maybe they try out a hike or a longer bike ride or even get out to camp under the stars. It can all start with the first visit to a local park or trail.
How goes OLVF’s leading the charge on the Vegas Valley Rim Trail project, and its aim of more than 100 unbroken miles? Thanks to the great efforts of all of the jurisdictions, the Vegas Valley Rim Trail—the idea that a trail can encircle the Valley and literally and figuratively link our special places—is taking shape. You can now travel along the Las Vegas Wash Trail (crossing through North Las Vegas, Las Vegas, and Clark County) to the Wetlands Park, to the River Mountains Loop Trail. A jog over brings you to the McCullough Hills Trail. The 215 Trail is building that link on the west side.
Who do you see as the major beneficiary of this endeavor? Bike commuters? Hiking enthusiasts? Neighbors looking to connect with other neighborhoods? Really, all of the above. The River Mountains Loop trail provided the model. Visit that trail and any day you’ll see hikers, people walking dogs, cyclists ... people from the area or even someone visiting from Japan or Australia checking out that trail. It’s a place for our local and global community to come together. I’d love the Vegas Valley Rim Trail to be that on a larger scale someday.
What has been OLVF’s most popular or effective program to date, and has that changed what you see as your primary mission? We have two program areas that have become pillars for our organization. One is our education program. This began with OLVF writing a small grant request for field-trip funding. We distributed that funding through micro-grants with the idea that we wanted to make it easy for teachers and youth programs to support getting kids outside, with an emphasis on lower-income and at-risk youth. Through this program, we are able to reimburse a portion of the cost of the field trips. We began in February 2012, and to date have connected over 8,000 youths to outdoor experiences. Demand always exceeds our available funding, but we’ve been incredibly fortunate to receive support from grantors including NV Energy, Barrick Gold of North America and Wells Fargo. It’s really incredible when you see a child who has grown up looking at mountains from far away actually get to that place and light up as they explore ... or look at Lake Mead and see the largest body of water they’ve ever seen in their lives. That field trip program has turned into after-school and summer programs. Our other central pillar is engaging the community through volunteer experiences. The idea is that these places belong to all of us; it feels good to take care of them alongside our neighbors and friends. Trails and parks are an investment, and we can be partners in caring for them.
What’s your favorite place to get outside in or around Las Vegas? That is a very hard question. My cozy go-tos are the trails near my house where we walk with our dogs and bike with our family. But we love to stay at the campgrounds at Mount Charleston, raft down the Black River, check out the colors at Red Rock Canyon or Valley of Fire, and the quiet of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. It’s too hard to pick one. They all make me happy and are all very different but important. I think of my step-daughter, who said the most amazing thing. She said, “When I’m away from nature for too long, it’s as though I have a tear in my heart ... when I get outside it’s like it gets taped back up and I feel better.” It’s simple as that, being outside just makes me happy. It’s led me to where I am today, and I want to share that with our incredible community. I guess my job is my way of paying it forward.