In celebration of Latino Conservation Week, today's People of Public Lands feature is Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz. Cruz is an environmental policy and advocacy expert and has served as the president of Sierra Club since 2020, the first Latino person to hold the position in the organization's 130-year history.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What brought you into the environmental movement?
Ramón Cruz: "I think I had the environmental chip early on in my childhood; my mother was a marine biology teacher, and she had an ecology club in the school I went to. I was a boy scout, so we did camping, and the place where my family celebrated all special occasions. And I come from a big family with, in total, over 50 cousins, so nature was an important part of my childhood. However, I feel that when people ask me this question, choosing environmental advocacy as a career, I bring it back to social justice activism during my university years…
"If we think back in the 50 years of the modern environmental movement, there's not really that many protagonists, but it's a movement of masses that has grown. … Ultimately, I think protagonists are harmful for movements, because they focus so much on the person. So the environmental movement in that way, it's a movement without a face that crosses boundaries, that crosses communities, identities, and it is an increasingly more inclusive movement."
What was your first experience on public lands?
RC: "I'm originally from Puerto Rico. My late uncle had a house in the outskirts of El Yunque National Forest. El Yunque is a rainforest, a part of the National Forest Service, and it was a very special presence at all these special occasions, like Mother's Day, Three Kings Day, national holidays. We spent them there as a family, so it has a place very dear to my family and to myself, and is also a very important part of the National Forest Service."
What can people do to protect public lands?
RC: "The best way to preserve public lands is to understand them, understand why we need to protect them. And also to understand that … these are not gifts to us. These are loans from future generations. And so it is very important to protect them. For example, getting involved in a local or state level initiative related to the 30x30 goal.
"Scientists have been very clear that we need to protect 30% of all lands and waters by 2030 [to] avoid the worst effects of climate change. Some communities have already set their own goals of 30x30. For example, in California, they have been trying to incorporate this in their climate response for the state by preserving 30% of the lands and doing so in an equitable manner and in partnership with local and Indigenous communities. So, decision makers need to hear from regular people, from their constituents, on how important this is to protect land and water for future generations."
What is your favorite place on public lands?
RC: "Gosh, it's very difficult to say what is my favorite public land space because there's so many. I can tell that just not even 24 hours ago, I came back from rafting the Colorado River in Arizona from Lees Ferry all the way to Phantom Ranch and it was amazing, so that is, right now, on my mind. It's also on my face with a sunburn [and] the scruffy look. I haven't shaved in a week, and it was incredible. It was also very special to visit a place that the Sierra Club had so much to do [with], visiting the holes that the government put to build the Marble Canyon Dam, and [that] the Sierra Club was instrumental in stopping ... thanks to that, we have a river instead of a lake there, and we can preserve this landscape for many people to enjoy…
"I mentioned El Yunque National Forest before in Puerto Rico and how the Sierra Club was also very instrumental in preserving the buffer zones of El Yunque with what we call the Northeast ecological corridor in Puerto Rico. Many places are very dear to my heart and to myself and also to the Sierra Club history."
How do you like to explore public lands?
RC: "There's so many ways of exploring public lands. As I said before, I just came from rafting the Colorado River. I was hiking, I was sleeping in the riverbanks just with a sleeping bag. I love to go camping. I'm also a sailor and a diver… There's no [one] right way of experiencing public lands.
"I think what's most important is to take advantage of it, and to go out there and to experience it. It could be from a day trip to a whole weekend or longer that you use to go camping, bird watching, rock climbing, take photography, or just enjoy a picnic with your family.
"These are places that are very important for us as a society and as individuals, that inspire us, that make us enjoy life... and it is important that this is there for everybody to enjoy… I remember when I started visiting more national parks and national monuments in the United States, maybe 25 [or] 30 years ago, [and] it wasn't such a diverse place. Now I can see how many places, especially close to urban areas, you see a lot of people from different backgrounds enjoying national parks and national monuments…
"We need to ensure also that these are safe places, where everybody's welcome and also very inclusive. So please, go and visit public lands with your friends, family, and enjoy it."
What’s next up on your public lands bucket list?
RC: "I think all national lands and monuments are on there, I would love to visit so many of them. I would say, for example, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, I think they have done great work providing nature access to millions of people in a city as diverse as LA. … This is a very exciting place, and they have done a great job to reach out to the community that neighbors this national monument, and there are many activists, like the Nature For All Coalition, that Sierra Club is part of, that are working to expand transit access to these national monuments… We hope that more LA residents are able to experience the mountains. … Another place that I'm hoping to visit ... is Avi Kwa Ame, in Southern Nevada. This is a beautiful place ... and Tribal Nations are calling for it to be recognized as a national monument for some time. That would safeguard wildlife and endangered species, invite more people to enjoy public lands, and act as a defense against climate change, so I very much look forward to it in my next visit to Nevada, and I look forward to seeing it in the National List of Monuments."