2016 Enos Mills Lifetime Achievement Award

Rafael Salgado

Executive Director, Cal-Wood Education Center


It could be said that Rafael Salgado walks in dual worlds functioning as a crucial bridge between two countries, two languages, and two cultures while providing experiences to create appreciation for and to improve understanding about the environment. His lifetime of exceptional accomplishments as an environmental educator is achieved through his diverse experiences, humble approach, genuine enthusiasm, and driving spirit.  

Originally from Mexico, Rafael grew up in a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacán, the wintering grounds for monarch butterflies.  Growing up there he was immersed in the natural environment, which was all around him.  As the 11th of 14 children, Rafael grew up helping his family with farming and raising livestock.  His father, mayor of their town, served as a role model teaching him how to improve others peoples’ lives.  

When Rafael headed off to college he wanted to study wildlife and the environment.  With no such degree program available at that time, however, he resigned himself to studying agriculture and range management so he could continue assisting his father and family.  He was able to change his degree focus by being in the right place at the right time and meeting his future mentor, Dr. Julio Carrera, who was a professor and researcher at the university.  It was a stroke of luck that lead to Rafael’s opportunity to be involved in the first field research project in Mexico studying black bears. Their field research on bears in Northern Mexico, which lasted six years, ultimately lead to the creation of a national park.  Rafael fondly refers to Julio as the “Mexican Aldo Leopold” and he remembers the amazing work they did jointly leading to several conservation projects, the designation of state and national protected areas, and the creation of numerous conservation education programs for countless cities, local governments, states, and non- overnmental organizations.

It was his mentor, Julio, who was responsible for the next essential chapter in Rafael’s career.  In 1989 sent by Mexico’s Universidad Antonio Narro, Rafael arrived as an intern at Cal-Wood Education Center to observe and learn about developing and implementing environmental education (EE) programs.  Rafael worked under the direction of Dr. David Knots, Cal-Wood’s Executive Director.  Rafael arrived knowing only a little conversational English.  By teaching kids in the field, he quickly learned to communicate in English.  It was in Cal-Wood’s 1,200-acre classroom that Rafael discovered his lifelong love for EE and teaching kids!  

Rafael went on to work as Cal-Wood’s Program Director for several years developing and implementing outdoor/science based education programs for school groups.  He always hoped to come back and run Cal-Wood.  Rafael then moved to Texas and served as the Information Specialist for Texas Parks and Wildlife coordinating and training volunteer instructors for angler and hunter education programs.  He also facilitated EE programs such as Project WILD Workshops for facilitators.

In 1994, Rafael moved back to Mexico.  He was recruited, at the request of the governor of Coahuila, to develop its first statewide EE program.  Rafael recalls that all his previous experiences, in two different countries, prepared him to create the governor’s program.  Within this original and comprehensive program, Rafael developed curriculum relevant to the biodiversity in the region’s Chihuahua Desert.  He involved 90 percent of the state’s schools by providing trainings for more than 6,000 teachers and creating 1,000 green schools, as well as training municipalities’ staff to help with their conservation efforts.  Ultimately, this program would be recognized as the most outstanding EE program in Mexico.

Rafael’s dream of returning to Cal-Wood as its executive director was realized in 1999. The board of directors asked him to reopen the center, which had been closed for a few years.  Rafael brought all his diverse experiences and newly enhanced ability to create unique partnerships with and to secure buy-in from distinct partners and audiences.  Under his vision and leadership, Cal-Wood’s mission shifted from teacher training to a focus on bringing students and teachers back to this vital residential outdoor education center as a part of their school year.  In 2016 alone, Cal-Wood provided programming for more than 4,500 school-aged students and summer campers.  

Rafael had committed his career to designing a model of EE that is accessible to all, and subsequently availing such programs to the students that draw the deepest benefit from these experiences.  His initial focus was providing opportunities for underserved and low-income students.  He acknowledges, however, that times are changing, “Even kids who have all the resources are not experiencing the outdoors very much.  They’re just spending time in front of electronics.  We have to be more creative about how to motivate those students.”  Rafael believes understanding and appreciating the environment are crucial to students becoming future leaders.  “Kids need to be prepared to make informed decisions towards the environment, towards natural resources.”

In 2013, Rafael was swept into Cal-Wood’s greatest challenge—the devastating flood of that fall.   Access roads to the center were washed away and four of the facility’s six miles of trails were damaged, some severely.  After two days of flooding, the students attending Cal-Wood were informed their ride home would be on a chinook helicopter!  The National Guard evacuated 78 fifth-grade students and 13 adults.  One of the teachers shared that she felt privileged to work alongside Rafael as he handled the stressful situation with competence, grace, and humor.  Rafael worked tirelessly and tenaciously to reopen the center.  He petitioned the county to open the road, raised funds, and drew on his well-established partnerships in the community.  Thankfully, six months after the flood Cal-Wood reopened to continue implementing its mission.   

Rafael has engaged numerous local partners to create his most recent endeavor—a Latino Family Camp Program—providing an overnight camping program for multi-generational Latino families.  The program provides resources and subsequent experiences for Latino families in a culturally sensitive format to create “tools” for parents to better support their children’s education, as well as to educate families about healthy recreational opportunities in venues not commonly or easily accessed by the Latino community.  Rafael has a personal motivation seeded by his mentor, Julio, when he left Mexico, to support his people—the Latino community in Colorado.  Since 2014 this highly successful program has touched almost 1,000 youth and their families, directly impacting the civic, educational, and cultural aspects of the Latino community.  Again, acting as a bridge, he is providing traditional EE opportunities to diverse and underserved populations.

Locally, nationally, and internationally, Rafael has operated as a leader exemplifying the best of EE and working to improve the field of EE.  The many distinctive awards he has received, as well as his mentorship of other local and national organizations are a testament to his vision of and commitment for an environmentally literate world.  

“I have been working with Spanish-speaking families in the Front Range for almost 18 years, and I cannot stress enough how important this is, how difficult it is, how unique Rafael’s passion and skill set are within the field, and how wonderfully successful he has been.”  Dave Sutherland, Park Naturalist, City of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks

CAEE works to ensure everyone in Colorado has an opportunity to learn about the environment where they live. We value inclusiveness and welcome everyone to the field of environmental education.

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