Clean, protected waters will help New Mexico recover

By Axie Navas, Director, New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division
Santa Fe New Mexican | November 21, 2020

As the COVID-19 health emergency intensifies, the Outdoor Recreation Division, within the Economic Development Department, continues to look ahead for opportunities to help the New Mexican economy recover and become more resilient.

We know the state’s burgeoning outdoor recreation industry will be vital to these efforts as we build a durable, diversified and sustainable economy for our children.

The data released earlier this month from the Bureau of Economic Analysis was resounding proof of this. The report shows that last year, the New Mexico outdoor industry employed over 35,000 people and contributed $2.4 billion to state GDP. It grew by almost 6 percent since 2018, faster than the outdoor industry nationwide.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham understands that outdoor recreation is an economic engine. That’s why she signed the Outdoor Recreation Division into law in April 2019. Our New Mexico senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, also get it. They know their shared commitment to protecting public lands and rivers will protect rural economies.

Take the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act, legislation the senators introduced in May to designate nearly 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers as Wild and Scenic. This would enhance and protect the local economies, underpinned by mining, ranching and a growing outdoor recreation industry, which includes activities such as hiking, fishing and kayaking. The small businesses of Grant County and southwestern New Mexico as a whole will benefit from this legislation.

Protecting these places isn’t just about increasing tourism. It’s also about protecting clean water and untrammeled landscapes, and recognizing the cultural and environmental impact such places have on the residents of Silver City, Deming, Las Cruces and more. It’s about protecting a New Mexican way of life, and increasing the quality of life and mental and physical well-being for all New Mexicans.

A new study commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts puts this in perspective. The report — conducted by Southwick Associates, an economics firm specializing in outdoor recreation markets — shows outdoor recreation in the Gila River and San Francisco River watersheds stimulates economic activity that supports at least 5,000 jobs and $92.4 million in income. Spending on these activities contributes roughly $427 million and is associated with at least $143.9 million of value that is added to the economy every year

This research reinforces what the Outdoor Recreation Division already knows: New Mexico’s outdoor economy is growing, and we should support that growth respectfully and proactively.

That’s also why the Outdoor Recreation Division, in partnership with many local communities, from the village of Taos Ski Valley to the village of Jemez Springs, is pursuing an Outstanding National Resource Waters designation for three rivers in Northern New Mexico: the Rio Hondo, the Upper Rio Grande and the headwaters of the Jemez. If enacted, this designation would protect the rivers’ water quality in perpetuity.

These water protections are the right thing to do morally and economically. According to the Pew study, designation of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers as Wild and Scenic would stimulate a potential increase of $144 million in recreation spending each year.

The Gila Wild and Scenic legislation as well as the Outstanding Waters petition are supported by a diverse community of stakeholders, including pueblos, acequia associations, sportsmen and women, veterans, small-business owners, faith and civic organizations, local municipalities and governments, landowners, ranchers, and outdoor recreation and conservation organizations. A recent poll found 65 percent of voters in Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Sierra Counties support designating the Gila and San Francisco rivers as Wild and Scenic.

Udall and Heinrich deserve much credit for hosting a series of roundtables, town halls and discussions with stakeholders to develop legislation that is representative of the communities most impacted by it. Their leadership on the Gila Wild and Scenic legislation will protect and grow New Mexico’s economy.

This guest column originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

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