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In 2006, Jackie Miller was done with New York City.

“It was hard not to be able to see the sky, check out the moon,” recalled the native of upstate New York. “I really needed a change of pace. So I headed West without a job.”

She landed one with Great Outdoors Colorado, the organization formed in 1992 to funnel portions of lottery proceeds to parks, trails and conservation projects around the state.

Flash forward to today, and Miller finds herself as leader of the agency with an annual $70 million budget.

The GOCO board recently announced Miller as executive director after serving the better part of her tenure creating programs such as Generation Wild, aimed at introducing more youth to the outdoors. More recently, Miller helped craft GOCO’s strategic plan, which pledges to prioritize people of color and those with lower incomes heading into the organization’s 30th year.

Miller will also oversee a new staffing model, with GOCO basing officers in regions around the state. “To ensure that we’re creating these deeper connections between communities and GOCO,” Miller says.

We caught up with her ahead of her first full month on the job. Here’s an abbreviated version of the conversation:

So you came to Colorado on a whim?

I did. I came to visit Denver once, and I remember sitting on 16th Street Mall. Coming from New York, everyone was walking so leisurely. It was like, whoa, things are a lot slower here. I’m a lover of nature, and it really felt like a happy medium between my college years in Burlington, Vermont, and the hustle of New York City.

What have the outdoors meant to you?

I got into rock climbing when I came to Colorado. As someone whose mind can furiously run circles at times, rock climbing really forced me to literally look at the next right step and take the next right step. I carry that philosophy with me in my everyday life now.

What have you learned over your time with GOCO?

That a funding partner is really only half of the equation to phenomenal outcomes on the ground. We need a strong, healthy partnership network. Local government partners, nonprofit land trusts, Colorado Parks and Wildlife. I’ve also learned that meaningful collaboration takes time, but it’s always worth it in the long run.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing GOCO right now?

With the pandemic, we saw an explosive amount of use on our public lands. That is wonderful to see. But before this explosive use, we already had a backlog of stewardship needs. We want to work with people and partners across the state to educate the general public about how important it is to recreate responsibly and care for and take care of our outdoors so we don’t love them to death.

What are top priorities starting out for you?

We have a brand new program portfolio that we just launched this year. We’re really orienting our work around a set of outdoor values that we share with our partnership network around resource conservation, outdoor stewardship, community vitality, equitable access, youth connections. So that’s a main focus, to do right by that portfolio.

How does that portfolio address equity and inclusion? 

First, we believe that in order to advance equity across the state, we’ve gotta radiate from the inside out. So I’m on a continual path of learning as I go to make sure that I’m always well-informed and showing up. Our new approach to grant making is more community-centered. We want community members to elevate projects and visions and concepts; we want those to bubble up from community levels so we can ensure our resources aren’t creating unintended barriers to access, but are actually helping community-driven solutions.  

Issues of water and climate change. Is there anything more GOCO can do there? 

We’ve always and will continue to work with our partners to advance natural climate solutions through our land conservation work, through our work in significant habitat restoration and stewardship effort. We need to be at the table and eagerly exploring and advancing partnerships with state and federal entities to move shared visions ahead and achieve high-impact goals toward climate resiliency.

Any projects you’re particularly excited about at the moment?

The Pikes Peak region has a great Generation Wild coalition in partnership with the city of Colorado Springs and Catamount Institute and so many others who are working in the region to break down barriers to outdoor access. We look forward to continuing to invest in that coalition. Of course, I know we’ve all been talking about Ring the Peak for so long. (The vision for a loop trail around Pikes Peak).

Is that ever going to get done?

Remember what I said, collaboration takes time. Yes, it will get done, and we will help make it happen.

This content was originally published here.