Building New Mexico’s outdoor economy

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) – Ryan and Cody Dudgeon both grew up in northwestern New Mexico. The two left for greener pastures in Missoula, MT.

But after working as river guides in Montana and Idaho for 14 years, the married couple came to see the rivers that run through their homes in New Mexico differently.

They returned to Farmington in 2015 and plan to start leading rafting expeditions on the Animas and San Juan rivers in May through their new company, Desert River Guides.

“We really fell in love with the lifestyle and the whole scene when we were in Missoula, so we wanted to bring that to Farmington,” Ryan Dudgeon told the Albuquerque Journal.

She said the scene around rafting in Farmington was very different from the happy outdoors Missoula. Rafting knowledge was limited and they were often eye-catchers as they drove through town with rafts in their truck trailer. Still, she said people were excited to have a new option for exploring the rivers.

“When we’re floating out there it’s amazing how many people are so excited to see us on the river,” Dudgeon said.

Desert River Guides is far from the only outdoor-focused business to launch or expand in New Mexico in recent years.

After years of silos and underinvestment, New Mexico’s outdoor recreation ecosystem, which includes everything from hunting and hiking to snowshoeing, has grown rapidly in recent years. Between 2018 and 2019, the number of outdoor recreation jobs in New Mexico increased 5.3%, compared with 0.4% growth nationally, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. A state office of outdoor recreation and trade association – New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Business Alliance, also known as Effort New Mexico – has emerged since 2019.

“There are a lot (of companies) in the far corners of the state doing their thing, and they never really thought about being part of a larger effort,” said James Glover, co-director. of effort.

Yet New Mexico still has a long way to go to catch up with other western states, including Utah, another relatively small state that has a much larger outdoor recreation economy than New Mexico.

As New Mexico seeks to develop its outdoor recreation ecosystem, its neighbor to the northwest offers hope, as well as uplifting stories.


A hive (state) of activity

Despite the industry’s growth, outdoor recreation remains a small part of New Mexico’s economy. BEA analysis shows the industry accounted for just 2.2% of New Mexico’s gross domestic product in 2019, the third lowest percentage among Western states. The two states with the lowest percentage – California and Washington – each have massive, technology-intensive economies.

Utah, on the other hand, has a much larger outdoor recreation industry than New Mexico, even taking into account its larger population. The industry’s economic impact totaled $ 6.36 billion in Utah in 2019, more than 2.5 times the total in New Mexico, according to the BEA.

Tom Adams, former director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation and chief operating officer of North American operations at outdoor recreation company Petzl, said the state historically had a strong outdoor industry. air, thanks to its natural beauty and central location.

“We like to talk about Salt Lake (City) as a mountain town with an international airport,” Adams said. “… We can get products from Salt Lake to major outdoor retailers very quickly.”

In 2013, Utah became the first state to add a statewide dedicated outdoor recreation office, and Adams said this helps the state coordinate its efforts and prevent the Utahns from taking their natural landscape. for granted.

“It took work, it wasn’t just about staying there,” Adams said. “The trails had to be worked on and developed.”

The current director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, Pitt Grewe, said the agency has a variety of responsibilities, from economic development to land management. Utah funded 59 outdoor infrastructure projects via grants in 2020, using local matches, so more than $ 6 million in state grants funded projects totaling just under 43 millions of dollars.

The office also manages Utah’s Every Kid Outdoors initiative, which funds programs that encourage kids to get outside, helping them understand the importance of land stewardship from an early age.

“There are kids growing up in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains… who never really surrendered,” Grewe said.

Adams added that the creation of the office also sent a message to the state and its universities that it needs to build up a workforce. Adams said state universities now offer training programs for students in different elements of the outdoor industry, from public land management to product design.

One such program, Utah State University’s Outdoor Product Design and Development Program, offers students a four-year degree while teaching them how to design, manufacture, and market a wide range of outdoor products. Professor Sean Michael said industry leaders in Utah want to create a more intentional path for students to be successful in the industry.

According to data provided by the university, 27 of the 31 graduates in 2019 found employment in the industry, at companies like Under Armor, LL Bean and Cotopaxi.

“I think the validation seems pretty darn clear there,” Michael said.

Each stakeholder recognized that the growing industry also presents challenges. As more people move to public lands in Utah, popular areas are suffering from degradation and overcrowding. Michael said these effects were only exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic and state and federal agencies struggled to keep pace.

“COVID, as any land manager will tell you, threw punches in the blind side,” Michael said.


Where are things at NM?

New Mexico doesn’t have Utah’s list of top outdoor gear companies, but it does develop a unique collection of long-standing local businesses, entrepreneurs trying new things, and established businesses. looking to expand into a new market.

A newcomer is Rail Explorers, a Rhode Island-based travel agency that offers guided tours along the tracks using pedal-assisted “rail bikes” with power assistance. Rail Explorers CEO Mary Joy Lu told the Journal the company is expanding into Lamy and will start offering tours of Lamy Depot in June.

“We’re looking to be a very good part of the offering that’s already out there,” Lu said.

New Mexico will be Rail Explorers’ fifth market, and Lu said the company is working to engage the community and reuse materials to create a unique type of tour. The company tends to attract hikers and bikers, but Lu said the tours stand out because they appeal to families of all ages and skill levels.

“Other than hiking, there isn’t much to do with all ages and generations having varying levels of fitness,” she says.

Another travel agency, Free-to-Roam eBiking, is launching tours to Albuquerque next month. Founder Susan Gautsch, from New Mexico, said she learned to love e-bikes in Los Angeles and wanted to take the experience home.

“When you’re on the bike, you start to experience things that you ride all the time,” Gautsch said.

Gautsch has mapped out several tourist routes through open spaces in and around Albuquerque, and said it could eventually expand to other communities in the state.

“New Mexico is so full… of these places I never went as a kid,” she said.

New Mexico’s outer ecosystem is less advanced than Utah’s, but local stakeholders agree that many of the same resources are taking place.

Axie Navas, director of the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation division, said Utah’s infrastructure grant program helped inspire a similar program in New Mexico. After a $ 75,000 pilot program launched last year, Navas said the funding had increased to $ 500,000 to help fund trail improvements, outdoor pavilions and other projects.

“I think this is a testament to the fact that we have a governor and lawmakers who see a benefit,” she said.

Navas praised Utah’s emphasis on outdoor recreation at the college level. She also highlighted the work being done in schools in New Mexico, particularly at Western New Mexico University in Silver City and New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, to focus on forest management and other programs adjacent to the outdoor industry.

“I think there are schools in New Mexico that are doing it really well,” Navas said. “And I would love to see every community college and university in the state offer some kind of outdoor recreation industry program.”

Craig Johnson, head of the outdoor recreation program at the New Mexico State Land Office, said overcrowding in states like Utah and Colorado could benefit New Mexico. While hikers and cyclists have had enough of the crowds in places like Moab and Durango, the forests and mountains of New Mexico can provide a welcome respite.

“I think we can turn that into an advantage, to say ‘do you want to avoid the lines, do you still enjoy the loneliness,’ Johnson said.” … Because that’s what New Mexico can offer. “

Johnson and Navas acknowledged that the state must work now to avoid overcrowding on the road. Navas stressed the importance of educating people to recreate the outdoors and promised to look beyond just job growth and sales when assessing the impact of more. visitors to the lands and communities of New Mexico.

“I think success and growth really hinges on this holistic approach,” Navas said.

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