A More Equitable Outdoors

State lawmakers advance a bill that would create an outdoor recreation division and grant program

When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs a bill to create an outdoor recreation division into law, it'll come with a first-in-the-nation outdoor equity grant program aimed at issuing microgrants to organizations that take low-income youth outdoors in New Mexico. The goal is to fund opportunities for kids to scuff their shins and get dirt under their fingernails.

Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, who co-authored the portion of the bill creating the grant program, says she felt that that for the state to do outdoor recreation right, it needed to use this opportunity to promote equality.

"I believe that access to the outdoors is a human right," she says. "I also believe it's a public health issue."

And, she adds, after their experiences hiking, biking, fishing or hunting, some of these kids may grow up to run the kinds of businesses this initiative hopes to spark.

The effort has the support of 30 New Mexico organizations and companies, from the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and Conservation Voters New Mexico, to Indigenous Women Rising and PFLAG Las Cruces, as well as 18 national organizations, including Latinos Outdoors, Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors (HECHO), and REI. They jointly signed a letter to the governor in support of the office and the equity grant fund.

"As we focus the [Office of Outdoor Recreation's] mission of attracting tourists and outside investment to benefit New Mexico's economy, we should also focus on giving those same recreation and education opportunities to the underserved youth of our state—a state that has fallen to last in child well-being, hunger, and education, and second-to-last in childhood economic well-being," the letter reads. "If we do not simultaneously invest in our children and give them the opportunity to enjoy the same public lands and natural resources we are trying to promote to visitors, we will be once again failing our most precious resource, the youth of New Mexico."

That New Mexico's local economy takes a hit in tandem with extractive industries was front and center during the recently concluded Legislative session. Lawmakers debated how to regulate the oil and gas industry that's been so generous for the state's budget, and how to help the Farmington area recover economically from the pending closure of the San Juan Generating Station. In an effort to loosen that dependence, some communities have been looking toward outdoor recreation.

Ostensibly, this office would aid that effort, and the choice to house this division in the state Economic Development Department signals its priorities. Amid debate around the bill, some lawmakers asked how this would differ from the "New Mexico True" campaign run by the tourism department. Backers say this effort is about attracting and opening new businesses.

"It's for the purpose of growing jobs in all corners of the state, as well as promoting the outdoor recreation assets," Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said during the Senate floor debate on the bill. "It's a way to grow our economy. It's a way to diversify our economy."

The outdoor equity fund is allocated just $100,000, but private companies and other organizations have already made soft commitments to adding to those dollars.

"This is also a mechanism to further diversify our economy, but I think there are still some in this body who don't yet see that vision, so my hope is that over the next 10 years, we start to invest more and more because we know the return on investment is that much bigger," Rubio says.

Utah established the first outdoor recreation office in the nation in 2013, and its first director, Brad Peterson, has encouraged his peers in other states to be "pro-recreation and not anti-anything else" and proactive about inserting themselves into key issues. For example, he made sure a leasing plan for oil and gas in southern Utah took outdoor recreation into account. His successor has piloted a grant program for improvements to campgrounds and trails. The outdoors has provided a boom for the state—research paid for by the Outdoor Industry Association tallied $12.3 billion in consumer spending and 110,000 direct jobs. Arches National Park, near Moab, has seen such high visitation that park managers contemplated launching a reservation system just to get in the gates, then shut that effort down when the town realized how its economy would suffer with even a slight drop in tourism.

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, launched in 2015, partnered with the University of Colorado Boulder MBA program to develop Blueprint 2.0 to help rural communities identify opportunities to grow. The office also helps promote Leave No Trace principles to keep from loving the woods to death, and is working on research to better document outdoor recreation's effects on health. The state sees $28 billion in consumer spending around the outdoors, and 229,000 direct jobs—a tall order for New Mexico if lawmakers are serious about trying to catch up to that kind of economic engine.

"It's not going to be immediate, it's going to be over the course of a generation," Rubio says. "But that's why we're hopeful about this equity fund — it will change the scope and the trajectory of where our young people are at."

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