By Adrian Hedden | Carlsbad Current-Argus
December 28, 2020
As the virus spread starting this spring, New Mexicans saw movie theaters close, restaurants shutdown and concerts cancelled.
But the state’s hiking trails and mountain peaks could fill the void left by restrictions on entertainment options intended to stem the spread of coronavirus.
To that end, New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division — an arm of the state’s Economic Development Department — made two special appropriation requests to the Legislature for next year to be considered during the 2021 lawmaking session convening in January.
The Division requested about $3.22 million to fund its Great New Mexico Trails Package, an appropriation that would provide stimulus funding to local communities and agencies with the intention of developing and maintaining hiking trails throughout the state.
A second appropriation of about $1 million was made for the Division’s Outdoor Equity Fund to support programs intended to provide grant funding for youth programs center on outdoor recreation.
Division Director Axie Navas said outdoor recreation was one of the state’s fastest-growing industries and would be instrumental in driving state revenue as it recovers from the economic stress of the pandemic.
She said recent numbers show outdoor recreation represents about $2.4 billion in state gross domestic product (GDP) and employs up to 35,000 New Mexicans, and that New Mexico’s industry is growing faster than the national average.
“We understand outdoor recreation in New Mexico is a powerhouse,” Navas said. “It’s going to be key to our recovery. We’re looking at this one-time appropriation as a way to jump-start communities.”
And with the passage of the federal Great American Outdoors Act, which fully funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Navas said the state could be eligible for a one-to-one match of state funding using federal dollars.
“That means New Mexico as a state stands to receive much more money from that fund in the coming years,” she said. “We need to meet that match in order to not leave federal dollars on the table, especially for rural communities that have amazing outdoor recreation opportunities but might not have the match.”
Much of New Mexico’s public land is used for its biggest industry, extraction, but Navas said by bolstering outdoor recreation the state could preserve its natural resources while diversifying the economy that presently relies heavily on the volatile fossil fuel industry.
“It’s an effort to diversify the economy throughout New Mexico,” she said. “It’s growing faster. Let’s work to make it one of our economic lynch-pins. While we’re at it, let’s improve access to outdoor resources that improve our mental health and environment as well.”
She said she was optimistic that lawmakers would agree and see outdoor recreation as an important sector in the state in need of increased funding.
“I think we have a lot of support from people across the state who see the need. That translates to lawmakers,” Navas said. “We’re waiting to see what the Legislative Finance Committee does. Now is the time to do it. We have shown how important it is to get outside during this pandemic.”
In a letter to both the New Mexico House and Senate finance committees, a collective of environmental and conservation groups including WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance voiced support for the requested appropriation, pointing to a “lack” of funding in New Mexico dedicated to outdoor recreation, and the need to leverage state funding for a federal match.
“Unlike many Western states, New Mexico lacks dedicated funding for state-wide conservation and restoration programs, hampering the state’s ability to leverage federal dollars,” the letter read. “This one-time Outdoor Recreation Division’s stimulus request will allow the state to leverage newly-available funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.”
The groups argued that economic benefits of outdoor recreation could stimulate rural communities and help educate children in communities across the state.
“We ask legislators and appropriators to grant the Outdoor Recreation Division’s 2021 special appropriations requests to invest in the health and wellbeing of our communities and the next generation of outdoor stewards,” the letter read.
“These Economic Development Department programs benefit everyday New Mexicans and represent a substantial opportunity to rebuild our economy. Providing stimulus funding now will shorten the economic recovery period and mitigate financial impacts on the lives of New Mexicans.”
This article originally appeared in the Carlsbad Current Argus.