New Mexico establishes an outdoor recreation division and equity fund for diversity outdoors

The 12th state to create a government office dedicated to promoting the outdoor recreation economy, New Mexico lawmakers voted last night to establish an Outdoor Recreation Division—and the effort takes a different flavor in the Land of Enchantment. While rafting and biking have merited mention, Senators and Representatives also envision a booming recreation economy in the form of more people fishing for pike and tiger muskie or hunting deer, ducks, and antelope.

But the bill also keeps an eye on the state’s diverse demographics, creating a first-of-its-kind Outdoor Equity Grant Program. The grant program will target funds toward low-income youth and partner with private companies for a ripple effect some believe could reshape the state over coming generations.

“This will help all corners of our state build on the $9.9 billion outdoor recreation industry in the state of New Mexico,” Senator Jeff Steinborn, a Democrat from the southern New Mexico city of Las Cruces, said as he introduced the bill on the Senate floor. The goal is to create jobs, he explained, which is why the legislation locates the division in the state’s Economic Development Department, rather than the Tourism or Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources departments.

A fellow sponsor of the bill, Sen. Steven Neville, a Republican from the small town of Aztec in the northwestern part of the state, continued, “Somebody said, in some committee along the way, ‘Why don’t we just buy a bunch of signs or put some ads in the paper?’ and that’s not what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to promote the business of outdoor recreation.”

Organ Mountains in New Mexico with full moon

The rugged Organ Mountains range is in the southern part of New Mexico and part of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument which offers fishing, rafting, mountain biking, climbing, and hiking.

That means not just advertising the state’s hidden treasures, like the Bisti Badlands or Navajo Lake, but making sure there’s a growing number of raft guides, boat dealers, and bike mechanics.

Rep. Angelica Rubio — a Democrat from Las Cruces who rode her bike the nearly 300 miles to the state capitol, Santa Fe, in a week-long trip that saw her hosting town hall meetings along the way — co-wrote the portion of the bill that creates the Outdoor Equity Grant Program.

“We felt that in order for us to do it right, we needed to do it in a way that it was inclusive for people of color and low-income kids,” she said. “So it’s not just about tourism. It’s also about creating a new generation of stewards here in the state.”

Through the fund, organizations that work with low-income youth would receive micro-grants to purchase tents or fishing poles, cover recreation fees or the cost of driving to the state’s national parks and monuments — measures that take kids outside to get their fingernails dirty. As the 2018 Outdoor Participation Report found, the number of young adults participating in outdoor recreation has dropped in recent years, and kids cited expensive equipment as a leading reason they don’t spend more time outdoors.

Early drafts of the bill allocated $1.5 million to the division, and $100,000 to the grant program fund, but that language was removed as the bill moved through committees. Those numbers will be sorted out as lawmakers continue negotiating the budget, though the $100,000 is likely to stick.

It’s not enough, Rubio conceded, but in some ways, the point is just to get started changing some hearts and minds by demonstrating that these efforts can make a difference. And where state dollars might fall short, private companies, including REI and The North Face, and foundations have made soft commitments to investing in the state.

The hope is that ripple effects reach some of the tougher issues in the state, which consistently ranks at the bottom of the nation for scores on childhood wellbeing.

“It’s not going to be immediate, it’s going to be over the course of a generation,” Rubio said. “We’re so hopeful about this equity fund, which is the first in the country, in that it will change the scope and the trajectory of where our young people are at.”

Slide showing stats about New Mexico's outdoor recreation economy from OIA

A snapshot of New Mexico's outdoor recreation economy, according to OIA's 2017 state-by-state report.

“New Mexico is exemplary in the country in their creation of an equity fund as part of their office of outdoor recreation,” David Weinstein, state and local policy director with the Outdoor Industry Association, said via email.” We’re thrilled to support their work, which aligns so well with the needs of state, and I hope other states will follow suit with this forward-thinking legislation.”

Support has been tremendous. The bill has 45 sponsors — more than the number of Senators serving in the state. Final votes saw Senators unanimously in favor, and Representatives split 52:14.

The legislation now heads to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. The governor, elected in November, has been a champion for this measure, calling it out in her first state-of-the-state speech in January. The day it was introduced, she rode her bike to her office at the state capitol through spitting snow.

“When we create a focused office to both attract new businesses and boost existing concerns, we will plant our flag alongside Colorado, Montana, Utah and others — and indeed we have the potential to surpass them,” Lujan Grisham said in a press release when the bill passed the Senate. “With this targeted investment, we can and will attract more young adults who emphasize the outdoors in where they choose to live; we will provide important new opportunities to disadvantaged youth through the first-of-its-kind equity fund; and we will expand the economic reach of this industry to all corners of this state.”

New Mexico’s outdoor recreation division will join similar efforts in Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming, and Washington.

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