Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador Program

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, Outward Bound Adventures, and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe, with funding provided by the Youth Community Access Grant from the California Natural Resources Agency, have embarked on an important conservation collaborative to reconnect Indigenous youth with their ancestral homelands in the Coachella Valley. The Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador (TM-YEA) program is a paid, youth-led work learning program that introduces Indigenous youth to the various fields of conservation. We shine a light on the environmental concerns that currently affect their Reservation and quality of life including loss of habitat for native plants and animals, drinking water contamination, poor air quality, illegal dumping, the decline of the Salton Sea, and climate change. Our goal has been to stimulate a passion for wildlife and wild places among these young environmental leaders. Ideally, all of them will become passionate advocates for the environment, and some, hopefully, will go into conservation as a profession.

“The Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador program is foundational to the protection of California deserts,” says Sienna Thomas, Conservation Social Scientist & Tribal Liaison. “Indigenous youth are reconnecting to their culture through land-based learning to create healthy communities and become new leaders in conservation.” Through this multi-faceted program, Indigenous youth are establishing personal goals, goals for their tribal community, learning federal and state environmental laws, and observing how Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and western science can work together to support and protect their changing landscape.

I am a Traditional Ecological Knowledge educator and cultural preservationist with a passion and dedication to reconnecting Indigenous people to the lands and creating opportunities for them in the fields of conservation and preservation.

The TM-YEA program aspires to encourage Indigenous youth to consider an environmental science path in higher education and expose them to the many diverse fields of employment in conservation. Bringing the program full- circle, Maya Nunez, who completed the TM-YEA program last year, has recently joined The Living Desert team as an Assistant Conservation Scientist! The second year of the TM-YEA program, with a new group of participants, began in the summer of 2023. Our success with TM-YEA inspired the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservatory to recently award The Living Desert a new grant, extending the program’s impact to train early-career Indigenous adults to go into conservation as a career. This new initiative is called the Native American Conservation Workforce Development program and, along with TM-YEA, will help improve the representation of Indigenous people in conservation and the quality of conservation that is done.


Your contribution to the Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador Program plays a crucial role in nurturing the next generation of Indigenous conservation leaders, reconnecting them with their ancestral lands, and guiding them toward careers that protect our planet and their heritage. Donate now to make a difference.

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