Panel: New Mexico's outdoor future tied to access, education

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The key to boosting the economics of outdoor recreation in New Mexico will require educational initiatives for school children as well as improved access and a new workforce, state officials said.

State Forester Laura McCarthy, Outdoor Recreation Division Director Axie Navas and others touted the state’s potential for growing its outdoor industry during an online panel discussion Thursday. They said efforts are underway to develop what they called a cradle-to-career outdoor education plan.

McCarthy said in developing her agency's plan for the next decade, she realized that for every strategy that was proposed, more workers were going to be needed. She said the hope is that officials can connect residents not just with outdoor experiences they might pursue with their friends and family but with careers.

“Because the need for restoration of the places that we recreate in is so tremendous,” she said.

Federal data and recent studies by advocacy groups show the industry in the state supports more than 33,000 jobs and nearly $1.2 billion in income and accounts for about 2.5% of the gross domestic product, or $2.3 billion. A report released earlier this year also said the tally of people working in the industry has surpassed farming and manufacturing.

Business leaders, educators and others will be meeting over the next few months in an effort to solidify the education plan and a set of recommendations that will cover the youngest of students through higher education.

Another piece of the equation is access. Citing high poverty rates, state officials say they hope to set an example for other states through a special grant program designed to create equal opportunities for experiencing the outdoors by working with community groups, tribes, municipalities and others on projects that balance conservation and recreation.

The Outdoor Recreation Division is expected to announce the first round of grant recipients next week. The awards will range from $5,000 to $25,000 and will require a match.

Navas said she has fielded calls from people in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, California and Minnesota who are interest in doing something similar.

The idea, she said, is to make investments in the places that residents hold dear and that are drawing visitors who want a taste of the streams, mountain ranges, canyons and prairies that make up the expansive state.

McCarthy and Navas pointed to the wildfires that have been raging across the West, saying restoration of overgrown forests and investments in other landscapes will be key to ensuring there are accessible places to recreate. They said an added challenge for managers will be balancing preservation with the effects of visitation, which has skyrocketed in some areas as many people have looked to escape to trails and parks during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We understand that conservation and this conversation about restoration of our forests, protecting these lands and waters, that’s essential to the outdoor recreation economy,” Navas said. “It’s not a side conversation, it’s not something that comes after, it’s something that has to be the foundation.”


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