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Building New Mexico's outdoor economy

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ryan and Cody Dudgeon both grew up in northwest New Mexico. Both left for greener pastures in Missoula, Montana.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ryan and Cody Dudgeon both grew up in northwest New Mexico. Both left for greener pastures in Missoula, Montana.

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

They moved back to Farmington in 2015 and are planning to start leading river-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 outdoor-happy Missoula. There was limited river rafting knowledge, and they would often draw stares as they drove through town with rafts in their truck trailer. Still, she said people were excited to have a new option to explore the rivers.

“When we float through 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-centric business to launch in or expand to New Mexico in the last several years.

After years of siloing and underinvestment, New Mexico’s outdoor recreation ecosystem, which includes everything from hunting to hiking to snowshoeing, has grown quickly in recent years. Between 2018 and 2019, the number of outdoor recreation jobs in New Mexico grew 5.3%, compared to 0.4% growth nationwide, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. A state office of outdoor recreation and a business association – New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Business Alliance, also known as endeavour New Mexico – have both sprung up since 2019.

“There’s a lot of (businesses) out there in the far corners of the state doing their thing, and they’ve never really thought about being part of a larger effort,” said James Glover, co-director of endeavour.

Still, New Mexico has a long way to go to catch up with other western states, including Utah, another relatively small state that boasts an outdoor recreation economy far larger than New Mexico’s.

As New Mexico looks to build up its outdoor recreation ecosystem, its neighbour to the northwest offers hope, as well as some cautionary tales.

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A beehive (state) of activity

Despite the sector’s growth, outdoor recreation remains a small part of New Mexico’s economy. The BEA analysis shows that the industry comprised just 2.2% of New Mexico’s gross domestic product in 2019, the third-lowest percentage among western states. The two states where the percentage is lower — California and Washington — each have massive, tech-heavy economies.

Utah, by contrast, has a much larger outdoor recreation industry than New Mexico’s, even adjusting for its larger population. The industry’s economic impact totalled $6.36 billion in Utah in 2019, more than 2 1/2 times the total in New Mexico, according to the BEA.

Tom Adams, former director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation and COO for outdoor recreation company Petzl’s North American operations, said the state has historically had a strong outdoor industry, thanks to its natural beauty and central location.

“We love to refer to Salt Lake (City) as a mountain town with an international airport,” Adams said. “… We can get product out of Salt Lake really quick to the major retailers in the outdoor space.”

In 2013, Utah became the first state to add a dedicated statewide office of outdoor recreation, and Adams said doing so helped the state co-ordinate its efforts, and kept Utahns from taking their natural landscape for granted.

“It needed work, it wasn’t just staying there,” Adams said. “Trails needed to be worked on and expanded.”

Current Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation Director 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 that more than $6 million in state grants funded projects totalling just under $43 million.

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

“There are kids who grow up within the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains … who have never actually visited,” 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 universities across the state now offer programs training students in different elements of the outdoor industry, from public lands 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, build and market a wide range of outdoor products. Professor Sean Michael said industry leaders in Utah wanted to create a more intentional path for students to succeed in the industry.

According to data provided by the university, 27 of 31 graduates in 2019 got jobs in the industry, at companies like Under Armour, L.L. Bean and Cotopaxi.

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

Every stakeholder acknowledged that the growing industry also brings challenges. As more people travel to Utah’s public lands, popular areas suffer from degradation and overcrowding. Michael said those effects have only been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and state and federal agencies have struggled to keep pace.

“COVID, as any land manager will tell you, has thrown blindside punches at them,” Michael said.

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Where do things stand in NM?

New Mexico doesn’t have Utah’s roster of massive outdoor gear companies, but it is developing a unique collection of long-running local companies, entrepreneurs trying new things, and established companies looking to expand into a new market.

One newcomer is Rail Explorers, a Rhode Island-based tour company offering guided tours along railroad tracks using pedal-powered “rail bikes” with an electric assist. Rail Explorers CEO Mary Joy Lu told the Journal that the company is expanding to Lamy, and will begin offering tours from Lamy Depot in June.

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

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

“Besides hikes, there’s not that much to do with all ages, and all generations that have varying levels of fitness,” she said.

Another tour company, Free-to-Roam eBiking, is starting up tours in Albuquerque next month. Founder Susan Gautsch, a New Mexico native, said she grew to love e-bikes in Los Angeles and wants to bring the experience back home.

“When you’re on the bike, you start discovering things you’d drive past all the time,” Gautsch said.

Gautsch has plotted several tour routes through open spaces in and around Albuquerque, and said she could eventually expand to other communities around the state.

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

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

Axie Navas, director of New Mexico’s 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 has grown to $500,000 to help fund trail improvements, outdoor pavilions and other projects.

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

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

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

Craig Johnson, outdoor recreation program manager at the New Mexico State Land Office, said overcrowding in states like Utah and Colorado could work to New Mexico’s benefit. As hikers and bikers get sick of the crowds in places like Moab and Durango, New Mexico’s forests and mountains can offer a welcome reprieve.

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

Johnson and Navas acknowledged that the state needs to work now to avoid overcrowding down the road. Navas stressed the importance of educating people recreating outdoors and promised to look beyond simple job and sales growth when evaluating the impact of more visitors to New Mexico lands and communities.

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

Stephen Hamway, The Associated Press