The great outdoors is the great equalizer. 

A quick glance at the trail users of Teton County reveals a need for greater equalization. 

The US census estimates that our Latino community members represent 24.9% of our total population. 

When was the last time you hiked Snow King or a trail in the Tetons and saw Latinos represented by a quarter of the folks on the trails?

There are a number of factors at play in this disparity. Many of our first-generation Latino community members work long hours at multiple jobs and have little time to recreate. 

Outdoor recreation is also expensive. Whether you want to mountain bike, paddleboard or ski the Pass, you’re looking at an outlay of thousands of dollars just to get started.

We can and should change this dynamic. Establishing a gear library to offer community members a low-cost way to get outside would be a great way to start. 

Gear libraries work just like book libraries: users can “check out” outdoor recreational equipment for camping, hiking, backpacking and more. Their primary purpose is to reduce one of the biggest barriers to getting outside: access to gear. 

In Washington State, The Washington Trails Association has created a gear library that loans out everything from jackets and boots to tents and packs. Similarly, the Outdoors Empowered Network has a network of gear libraries that extends around the country.

We can and should do the same in our community.

Let’s begin by surveying our Latino community members to ascertain their outdoor recreational interests and needs, and then use the results to inform the creation of a gear library here in Teton County. By providing easy access to equipment, we can build pathways into the cultural narrative of our outdoor recreation lifestyle, creating both economic and social returns in the process.

Outdoor recreation offers physical and mental health benefits that reduce medical costs, increase cognitive performance, lower cortisol levels and address social isolation and loneliness – health conditions that are increasingly recognized as economic, psychological and social strains on our individual and national wellbeing.

Outdoor recreation is also a gateway to engagement in the cultural narrative of our community. We can, and should, make it accessible to all our community members.

Creating a gear library here is not a big lift. In more than a few garages around the county sit packs, mountain bikes, kayaks, climbing shoes, tents, stoves, fishing poles and other mission-critical pieces of our outdoor lifestyle that have been replaced by newer models. Gathering dust, they could instead serve as a portal for a new generation of outdoor recreationists to fall in love with our natural world.

We furthermore have great organizations in place that could help crowdsource their members to start our library. The Teton Climbers’ Coalition, Mountain Bike the Tetons, Teton Backcountry Alliance and the Snake River Fund all have strong memberships that could be solicited for contributions. 

As mentorship is a key ingredient in outdoor recreational pursuits, those same orgs could develop mentorship programs to take people outside for the first time.

Add to those organizations the opportunity represented by local businesses like Rendezvous River Sports and Teton Mountaineering that have strong track records of community engagement as well as rental programs that result in end-of-season sales of gently loved equipment, and you have a recipe for a robust library with minimal up-front costs.

Such a library could be housed in one of these businesses, creating foot traffic and future customers alike. 

It could also become part of our extraordinary network of nonprofit organizations such as Browse-n-Buy, which already has the brick and mortar infrastructure in place to serve the community, or Coombs Outdoors, which has already activated a new generation of outdoor recreationists. Parks and Rec could be another logical home for our gear library.

Regardless of where such a library lives, we have an opportunity to use a proven model to create stronger engagement within our own community. We can and should invest in such a model: doing so represents not only a down payment on our next generation of community members, but on the next generation of stewards of our natural world as well.

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@ 2020 Christian Beckwith for Teton County Commissioner.