Taos native Nick Streit has been leading visitors on fishing trips since he was a teenager. In fact, some of his first clients had to chauffeur their guide because he didn't yet have a driver's license. Today, Streit owns the Taos Fly Shop, which was originally run by his father, and co-owns The Reel Life in Santa Fe, which he and Ivan Valdez purchased in 2014.
Business continues to grow: Streit's payroll for both shops in 2019 will approach $600,000, and what was once a family business now pays 10 full-time employees and 12 seasonal ones, all from rural areas around Taos, Española and Santa Fe. They offer 1,000 guided trips per year.
"Many born and raised New Mexicans like myself have found a stable and fulfilling career right here at home," Streit told lawmakers on the Legislature's interim Economic and Rural Development Committee last week during a public hearing on outdoor recreational tourism. "While so many friends I grew up with in Taos, and so many talented youth have to leave the state to find jobs and careers in other places, the fishing business for me has been a way to make a life here."
But while business swells, challenges loom, including climate change and its concomitant drought and forest fires. Other environmental threats: potential mining near Terrero and the Copper Flat Mine in Sierra County. Streit said his father closed The Taos Fly Shop in 1987, after seven years in business, largely because of the impact mining for molybdenum in Questa had on both the lower Red River and the Rio Grande (Streit reopened the shop in 2004).
But management of fish and wildlife resources represents, perhaps, the most daunting quagmire. The Department of Game and Fish is funded by license fees, but has not raised those fees in more than a decade, he noted. Its approximate $40 million annual budget pales compared with other states.
"More and more people are fishing in New Mexico," Streit said. "This is adding a lot of pressure on our streams and rivers and our lakes; we don't quite have the infrastructure." As a result, he added, many recreation areas have crumbling cement picnic tables and broken bathrooms, as well as poaching due to insufficient game wardens.
"I think we can do better," he said. "I think if we invest … in the landscape we all love, we are ultimately investing in our own economy and rural communities."
Francisco Valenzuela, director of Recreation Heritage and Wilderness for the US Forest Service's Region 3 out of Albuquerque, also pointed toward the infrastructure needs his agency faces.
"If you go to our campgrounds and our day-use sites, they look a little rundown," he said. "I'm not proud of that, but it's been very difficult over the last decade in particular to maintain these facilities, sustain them and, as they become run down, as they exceed the capacity of use, that turns away tourists."
Valenzuela also remarked that many facilities were designed in a different era, with campgrounds intended for tents not necessarily serving modern campers in RVs; trails designed for hikers and horseback riders rather than mountain bikers.
"We need to rethink about who we are serving and how we can best service and look at leveraging these federal assets," he said. "We need to begin to think about new recreational places; we need to be thinking about exciting recreational opportunities."
That's all that Axie Navas, director of the state Economic Development Department's new Outdoor Recreation Division, has been thinking about since coming on the job a month and a half ago. The division was created by the Legislature and approved last spring by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to tap into New Mexico's outdoor recreation sector as a major driver in the economy.
Navas, a former Outside Magazine journalist, told lawmakers she's driven nearly 3,000 miles around the state, visiting with people in 18 counties to spread the word and gather feedback.
Outdoor recreation already contributes $2.3 billion to the state's gross domestic product, she says, including $92 million from snow sports and $40 million from guided tours and outfitted travel, such as what Streit's businesses provide. According to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, the sector employs 33,000 people here. Plus the "abundance" of resources: five national forests, 15 national parks and monuments, 34 state parks and 26 wilderness areas. "We are a vast, wild state," Navas said. "And we offer the types of experiences, and solitude, that people crave, and that are becoming increasingly rare."
To fully capture its potential market, she says, New Mexico needs to help the industry with workforce development, as well as educate stakeholders about available resources. Her department will soon launch a website to this end. Finally, New Mexico has some perception issues. She's encountered industry people at Outdoor Retailer shows, for example, who don't know it snows here.
"But these conversations are changing," she said, "especially as companies realize the lifestyle they build their brands around—access to the outdoors—is dissolving on the Front Range, the Bay Area, due to exorbitant real estate prices and traffic snarls." Navas said she thinks the "question of outdoor rec cred will resolve itself" as New Mexico meets the "challenge and opportunity" of helping those businesses thrive.