At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, when the northwest part of the state had the highest numbers of cases and the virus was ripping through Gallup, resident Greg Kirk says it felt like: "We were the red headed stepchildren. It was awful. We're trying to outlive our Drunk Town USA moniker; we've been trying to rebuild our community for so many decades now. It was another black eye."

But as secretary of the nonprofit Adventure Gallup and Beyond, Kirk says the pandemic also galvanized a project to replace worn and damaged signs along the Pyramid Hiking Trail and Zuni Mountain Trail system as he saw more people head outside to hike, bike and recreate. "I've never seen so many people out on the trails," Kirk says.

The group found support from the state's new Outdoor Recreation Division, which awarded Adventure Gallup a $5,000 grant last month through a special projects and outdoor infrastructure program.

"The New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division just walks in parallel with everything we do," Kirk says. "It's so good to have a bigger champion on our side to really push our agenda forward."

Indeed, one year after its creation, the division has fanned out to all corners of the state, awarding $75,000 among six infrastructure projects. ORD Director Axie Navas says the office received nearly $720,000 worth of requests for that pilot project alone. As such, the state Economic Development Department will be requesting approximately $3.2 million in next year's legislative session to fund The Great New Mexico Trails Package.

While economic impact was a main criteria for the funded projects, Navas says "we were also prioritizing conservation impact or reduction of potential visitation impacts on an area." COVID-19 has sent many people outdoors, a positive development, but "we also have to invest in these places, so there isn't degradation of the natural resources."

Another recipient, the Village of Taos Ski Valley, received approximately $18,000 to help fund construction for an eco-friendly bathroom in the parking lot that serves as the gateway to Wheeler Peak as well as a highly trafficked day hike trail to Williams Lake.

Katherine Kett, who heads the Village of Taos Ski Valley Parks and Recreation Committee, describes use in the area as growing exponentially, even before the pandemic, which led to the idea to replace porta-potties with eco-friendly facilities. "We were thrilled to get the grant," Kett says, adding that the Outdoor Recreation Division "is really doing an excellent job of filtering this money in appropriate ways and kind of taking a real proactive approach to funneling this money into some really great local, but also regional projects."

The ORD also will ask for approximately $1 million for its keystone Outdoor Equity Fund, which prioritizes outdoor recreation and education projects for youth, particularly from underserved and low-income communities. The office awarded the first 25 recipients of that fund approximately $260,000 in September for projects the office says translates to 2,700 youth gaining outdoor experiences. It received 84 applications, which, if funded, would have put more than 38,000 youth outside.

The office also has been cognizant of working with tribal governments and pueblos, and has sought to fund projects in communities hardest hit by the pandemic. Those projects included a grant to Santa Clara Pueblo to build three new ADA compliant picnic at Santa Clara Canyon under the special projects program, and an outdoor equity grant to the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, an education/recreation initiative centered on the Zuni River.

The office is looking at both these programs, Navas says, "through an economic development recovery and resiliency lens that is intrinsically tied to COVID." Investments in the state's outdoor recreation economy, which is surpassing the US in a variety of metrics, according to a recent Bureau of Economic Analysis report, will support economic recovery, community health and quality of life.

The Outdoor Equity Fund has similar long-term goals that predate the pandemic, but it's also true, she says, "for the near and medium-term future we're going to have to be creative in how we educate kids, and the outdoors can be a safer alternative."

ORD also made a special $10,000 award over the summer to the Gallup-based non-profit Silver Stallion to create a Mobile Ride Center to fix bicycles for youth on the Navajo Nation. Silver Stallion founder and president Scott Nydam, a former professional road cyclist, saw a gap in the area for any sort of bicycle community. "If a kid gets a flat tire," Nydam says, "and they don't know how to repair it and there's no repair shop within a half tank, if not a full tank of gas, they're stifled."

To date, the Mobile Ride Center has fixed 428 bicycles through a series of 14 pop-up events. "It was received by the communities fabulously," Nydam says. "It was a better idea than we thought it was and I thought it was a great idea."

Ultimately, Silver Stallion plans to provide youth and young adult vocational training in both the bicycle repair and specialty coffee industries in a brick-and-mortar facility. Nydam, a 2020 fellow with the Environmental Education of New Mexico's equitable outdoor education program, sees the needs he's trying to address in the larger context of equity. "It's kind of ridiculous how much beautiful landscape we are surrounded by here in the state of New Mexico, and how little equitable access there is to it," he says. "In my mindset, there's a systemic neglect toward these things and I applaud Axie, and I applaud the Outdoor Equity Fund for taking a systems approach to address it."