Moving Mountains

Outdoor recreation advocates say the industry could help shape the state's future—and help solve its most entrenched problems

Axie Navas isn't a hunter, nor does she come from a fly-fishing background. She's soon planning to do both, as hunting and angling—along with snow sports, hiking, biking and rafting, to name a few activities—are now under her purview. As the new director of the state's new Outdoor Recreation Division, Navas' mission is to leverage the state's natural assets—its public lands and the people and businesses who provide activities on and products for them—into a major economic force in the state. She's spent her first month or so on the job traveling thousands of miles around New Mexico talking to people who hope the new initiative will help revitalize towns long dependent on extractive industries, save the environment and balance economic inequity.

For a start.

And while the office is nascent—operating at this point on an initial $200,000 budget but aiming for a $989,000 appropriation in next year's legislative session—the word is out.

Last week, the office, which is housed in the state's Economic Development Department, announced its first grants to help startups focused on outdoor recreation, with San Juan College Enterprise Center in Farmington and the Santa Fe-based Creative Startups each receiving $50,000 through a new equity fund to provide under-served children outdoor opportunities.

At the same time, Navas and others want to lay groundwork for further protecting natural resources in the midst of climate change. As such, the new focus on outdoor recreation as both an economic and conservation driver provides an inflection point for a poor state that is big on land, short on people and starting to rebound from eight years of a Republican administration criticized for its environmental policies.

New Mexico's efforts also are part of a larger nationwide pushback to protect public lands and natural resources.

In the West, New Mexico's profile differs from neighbor states such as Colorado and Utah, where public land use has led to overcrowding and, in many cases, degradation. This provides an opportunity to draw both visitors and new residents to under-populated and more affordable areas. Doing so also comes with risks, of which Navas, who grew up skiing in Vail, Colorado, is quite aware.

"People have always thought of Boulder and Denver as mountain towns, where you have access into these wild places, but you also have a place where you can have a good job and you can have a fun time and quality of life," she says. "Increasingly, the mountain town aspect of those places has really dissolved, in part because of traffic. The traffic on I-70, where suddenly you might be driving three to five hours to access what a decade ago might be an hour or two. I've seen that happen."

Still, she says, she's "bullish" about New Mexico, and confident that increased recreation use and businesses won't alter its communities. Nonetheless, having a conservation plan is one of her top priorities to dig into the "nitty gritty questions of, how do each of our agencies set capacity limits that are legitimate and right for the communities they're in."

Those communities appear ready for a new era, as do many long-term outdoor advocates.

"What we're working on doing is transforming our state's economy to where it's not exclusively reliant on oil and gas revenues, because that's not a sustainable model," says Jesse Deubel, executive director of New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit that represents sportsmen and women. "Now what we have to be careful of, though, is not loving an area to death."

Too much love has not been a problem in Raton, New Mexico, which has struggled for years to rebound from the loss of the coal mining industry— recent census figures counted approximately 6,000 residents, a 12% decrease over the last decade. At the same time, folks who have stayed or moved to Raton have plenty of love for their town, and say a renaissance is in the offing. Outdoor recreation, they say, will play a key role.

"One of our primary goals … is to rebuild a community that's really been gutted economically and demographically," says Geoff Peterson, executive director at Raton's Center for Community Innovation, which operates a commercial kitchen, helps drive Raton's tourism efforts and provides youth programs.

The center also worked with Creative Startups last spring, which ran a boot camp for startups there in which "half the companies were outdoor companies," Alice Loy, Creative Startups co-founder and CEO says. "So that opened our eyes to how much that sector is growing and how few resources there are specifically serving those entrepreneurs." Moreover, she notes, Creative Startups pays "attention to the economies in Colorado and Utah to see what our neighbors are doing, so we know that Colorado has been investing heavily in their outdoor rec industries and New Mexico is just getting started, which means our assets—our parks, our rivers, our mountains—are relatively unexplored. So we have destinations and opportunities in outdoor rec that are like the Wild West … compared with some of our western neighbor states that are becoming saturated."

Creative Startups' $50,000 grant from the Outdoor Recreation Division will fund entrepreneurial outdoor rec labs in public libraries or community centers.

Peterson says Raton also is poised to capitalize on the transformation of Trinidad, Colorado's Fishers Peak and surrounding former Crazy French ranch into a state park, which the City of Trinidad, The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land will manage for public use, including hiking, mountain biking and other outdoor activities. This could be a game changer for nearby Raton, Peterson says.

"We see a future where somebody could actually ride a bike from downtown Raton to that property," he says.

Peterson, who lives in Trinidad, also says Raton could benefit from Colorado's growth.

"Trinidad has really taken off," he says. "It's very difficult to find commercial space or even a home to rent. Raton is four or five years behind, where there's still a lot of cheap property." Some folks drive through downtown "and see the boarded-up buildings," and are deterred, but others are looking and saying "'I know what this could be.' I think we're attracting some new energy."

Count Jason Bennett among them. Bennett and Laurie "Bunny" Bunker bought the Raton Motor Pass Inn when they moved from Florida nearly four years ago. They were booked all summer, he says, and now Bennett operates another business, Raton Outdoors, from the inn, renting visitors kayaks, fishing equipment, mountain bikes and other gear. Most of his customers head to nearby Sugarite Canyon State Park. He's also hoping to benefit from Colorado's new state park, and pondering additional gear that might appeal to visitors—from rock climbing to snow inner tubes to comprehensive camping packages. He was looking forward to Navas' upcoming visit to Raton and hoping to talk to her.

"Maybe she can give me some more ideas," he said.

Raton's Economic Development Director Jessica Barfield sees growing evidence of momentum. Born and raised in Raton, Barfield left for 17 years, returned four years ago, and co-owns with her sister Enchanted Grounds Espresso Bar and Cafe. She says the town's ups and downs have created a collective entrepreneurial spirit. "We were left to save ourselves," she says, and "we've been aggressive in our outreach." Subsequently, tourists are coming in bigger numbers and retirees are moving to Raton drawn in part by affordable home prices. Her café will have its best year ever, she says. On Nov. 25, the state Economic Department awarded $800,000 to the Raton Main Street/Arts and Cultural District, in partnership with the City of Raton.

Barfield also looks forward to talking with Navas about how Raton can benefit from Trinidad's new state park. Outdoor recreation, she says, combined with people looking for affordable living are ushering in a new era in which the economy no longer depends on one industry, as it did with coal mining.

"I think people look back and of course it makes them a little sad," she says. "But the people who are left in Raton are the people who love our town, and that's why we are in a position to grow … We don't have a big company that's going to move to our town; it's up to us to make things happen. A lot of things are coming together—the last two years have been a turnaround, and we're set for really great things to come."

Farmington natives Dale and Rhonda Davis, founders and owners of 505 Cycles in Farmington, which they bought in 2018, share a similar optimism. Both have other jobs—Rhonda as a college teacher and Dale as general manager for Lone Star Truck Group—and work part-time at their business. They met with Navas when she visited Farmington in October, and hope the state will help find funding sources for new outdoor recreation initiatives in the city.

"Farmington, forever, has been really dependent upon the energy industry, whether it be oil and gas or the coal mines," Dale Davis says. "… Due to changes in things … some of it being politics, some of it being just changes around the area, the energy industry has really suffered for Farmington and San Juan County." The outdoor industry, he believes, is the way forward.

"A lot of the outdoor rec industry and jobs are really good paying jobs," he says. "And the more that grows, the more of those jobs we'll be able to offer. I'd love to be able to go from having four employees to having 16 or 20, and I believe that any time you have businesses spawning up, it's going to drive the economy even more … I think the jobs that it would bring in would be a game changer for Farmington."

The recent $50,000 grant to the San Juan College Enterprise Center in Farmington funds a makerspace for entrepreneurs working in outdoor product manufacturing. Those efforts dovetail with the city's Outdoor Recreation Industry Initiative, founded in 2017. Davis, an active mountain biker and member of that group, says it's led to more bicycle amenities—trails and parks—and he's noticed an uptick in visitors. He hopes the trail system can expand to connect Farmington to nearby towns of Bloomfield and Aztec.

"In the past it always seemed like people left here to go up [to Colorado] to enjoy the mountains or whatever, and people would pass through here heading to those places. Now, we're becoming more of a destination and that seems to be growing quite exponentially."

Farmington, he says, will be "the big dogs" growing the outdoor recreation economy in the state.

"We have so many different things to offer here," he says. "Within an hour [or] an hour and a half … you can enjoy any outdoor rec thing you want to do, whether it be hunting, skiing, fishing, golf, road biking, you name it, it's all there."

The same can be said for the state overall, which has robust skiing, rafting, angling, hunting and hiking, not to mention 9 million acres of National Forest and 13 million acres of BLM lands.

The national Outdoor Industry Association reports that the outdoor recreation economy here generates $2.8 billion in wages and salaries and 99,000 direct jobs.

Representatives from diverse industries support the state's new focus. Steve Harris, river conservationist and owner of rafting company Far Flung Adventures in El Prado, also has a pending meeting with Navas. He says he can see his industry benefiting from help with issues ranging from high premiums paid for workers compensation to more evolved training programs for people who want to work in the field.

Response has been positive from ski areas in the north, booming thanks to last year's snowy winter. Like ski areas around the country, some are expanding their offerings to other seasons. Taos Ski Valley Marketing Director Dash Hegeman says next summer Taos will be opening up for summer activities—rock climbing guided tours and lift-service mountain biking. Taos Ski also recently added California to its airline ski packages, and had an uptick of Colorado visitors last season when it became a partner with Ikon Pass. "I would say from our end, anything that brings more eyes to the fact that Northern New Mexico has great outdoor recreation opportunities for people of all ages and all ability … we view as very positive," Hegeman says— a sentiment echoed by representatives at Ski New Mexico and Ski Santa Fe.

It's also the word from the hunter and angler communities. Kerrie Cox Romero, executive director of New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, hopes the new push will help boost awareness of her industry "and grow from there into more programs that could economically benefit rural areas [where] often these outfitter guides are at."

The bounty of outdoor industries bolstered the efforts to create a devoted outdoor recreation office.

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who co-sponsored in the last legislative session the bill that created the division, describes himself as an outdoor "enthusiast," but more centrally a committed conservationist, as the Southern New Mexico director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. He said he's come to believe the way in which the outdoor recreation economic initiative "ties together with conservation is we have a really special thing with our environment here in the state of New Mexico, but it's vitally important we don't screw it up."

New Mexico's public lands, he says, are in some ways "the proverbial goose that laid the proverbial golden egg." In other words, if protected, "you have a sustainable asset for the long term." But high-trafficked public trails and parks in neighboring states such as Colorado and Utah provide a glimpse of the cost—financial and otherwise—from heavy traffic.

Steinborn is one of several outdoor recreation advocates who evoke the specter of the loving-it-to-death phenomena when talking about New Mexico's wild places. The phrase dates to Conrad Wirth, who served as the director of the National Park Service from 1951 to 1964, and who warned President Eisenhower and his cabinet in 1956 about overuse of public lands.

That problem has only grown with visitor numbers: 300 million a year. The National Park Service currently has a $12 billion maintenance backlog.

"No amount of money in tourism is worth destroying important habitat and important places," Steinborn says, stressing that educating people about sustainability and "leaving no trace behind" will be key as New Mexico grows its outdoor recreation industries.

It's also built into the law, and into the larger outdoor recreation movement. When the new office was signed into law last spring, it became one of 16 states with such an office. In October, Navas joined other state leaders at the Utah Outdoor Recreation Summit to sign the Confluence Accords, a list of best practices for states related to conservation, economic development and education.

Navas says the conservation element helped draw her to the job. She previously served as Outside Magazine's digital editorial director, and had watched the dialogue about public lands become more mainstream in the face of political conflicts, such as President Trump's decision to cut Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by 85%, and another monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, by approximately half. And of course, beyond politics, there's climate change.

"We have had an impact as a species on every acre on this planet," Navas says. "That is the reason why I believe in this work fundamentally and in large part why I left the job at Outside. I believe 100% if you get people outside to appreciate these wild places, they will fight to protect them."

That's been the case for Nick Streit, owner of Taos Fly Shop and co-owner of The Reel Life in Santa Fe. Streit, along with Navas, testified to the Legislature's interim Economic and Rural Development Committee in November about the outdoor recreation's value as an economic force (he's scheduled to take Navas fishing soon).

Streit helped lead the Red River Habitat improvement project, served as president of the nonprofit Trout Unlimited and is now conservation chair for Trout Unlimited's state chapter group Enchanted Circle.

"We worry a little bit about the economy," he says. "We worry a lot about the weather. The weather and water conditions are the biggest influencer of our business and I would say anyone in the outdoor recreation world is going to probably mirror that same thing."

Conservation also is a focal point for New Mexico Wildlife Federation. "A lot of people don't realize that hunting and fishing funds conservation in this state," New Mexico Wildlife Federation Executive Director Jesse Deubel says, noting that the Game and Fish Department is funded entirely by license sales and matching federal dollars through the federal Pittman-Robertson Act. License fees haven't been raised since 2005, and as a result, the department "is grossly under-staffed; we have a fraction of the number of biologists we actually need to do the work they're tasked to do." The Wildlife Federation will advocate in 2021 for a bill to increase fees.

But the prime way to ensure the future of New Mexico's natural environment, everyone agrees, is to make sure young people experience and learn about it now; particularly, people who might not otherwise have the opportunity.

New Mexico wasn't the first state to have an outdoor recreation division (that was Utah), but it broke new ground with its equity fund. It will be administered by the state's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department's Youth Conservation Corps program, which will put out calls for proposals in early spring. Nonprofits, government agencies and private businesses are all eligible to apply. "Really what we want to see is quality outdoor recreation— stuff that's fun, because if it's fun that does promote a sense of love of the outdoors, and that promotes caring and that promotes taking care of the land," says Sarah Wood, YCC's executive director. Forty percent of the youth served through the equity-funded programs need to be low income, with areas served divided equally between rural, tribal and urban regions.

Las Cruces City Councilor Gabriel Vasquez worked with State Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, to help push for the equity fund component, which will start with $100,000 in funding, but require fundraising going forward. REI and the Turner Foundation have both pledged $12,500 and $30,000 respectively. Founder of Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, Vasquez says he's seen the lack of opportunities for youth to have outdoor experiences first-hand as a city councilor serving what he describes as the city's poorest district. "We wanted to be the first in the nation to do this as a way to really build social and environmental justice into an office of outdoor recreation," he says.

And at the national level, Navas says, the growing movement of statewide outdoor recreation provides an opportunity to create real change nationwide.

"That's where I can see us moving our small part of the fight forward," she says. "To say to Congress with a unified front: 'We really need to invest in our public lands;' it's crucial to our economies and it's crucial to our states' futures."

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