‘Sleeping giant’: New Mexico poised to be outdoor go-to spot


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. | Quiet streams flush with native trout.

World-class quail hunting among the cactus and mesquite.

Ribbons of flowy singletrack hidden among the purple silhouettes of New Mexico’s mountain ranges and high desert ridges and canyons.

It’s not hard for state recreation official Axie Navas to sell the outdoor virtues of New Mexico. She reminded state lawmakers during a meeting Thursday that the Land of Enchantment is home to a handful of national forests, more than a dozen sites managed by the National Park Service, numerous wilderness areas and dozens of state parks.

“We are a vast, wild state and we offer the types of experiences that people have come to crave and that are becoming increasingly rare. Visitors know this,” she said.

Since taking the helm of New Mexico’s new outdoor recreation office six weeks ago, Navas has traveled 3,000 miles (4,827.8 kilometers) to visit with business owners, government officials and nonprofit groups in 18 counties. The discussions have centered on the opportunities and challenges of growing the state’s outdoor recreation economy.

Navas told lawmakers the industry already contributes billions of dollars to New Mexico’s coffers and employs some 33,000 people around the state. But there’s room to grow.

She and others who attended Thursday’s meeting pointed to Western states that have been able to coordinate efforts to grow outdoor recreation through dedicated agencies or commissions. That includes Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

Now that New Mexico has its own office, Navas is focused on sharing with key industry players the well-kept secret of the state’s outdoor offerings and correcting any misconceptions.

“We can change this,” said Navas, who worked previously with Outside Magazine. “These conversations are changing especially as companies realize the lifestyle they have built their brands on is dissolving in places like the Front Range of Colorado or the Bay Area due to exorbitant real estate prices and traffic.”

New Mexico already has been successful in growing the tourism industry overall with its long-running “New Mexico True” campaign. Last year marked another record-setting year, with an estimated 37.5 million visitors spending more than $7 billion in the state. Spending has increased 29% since 2011.

Much of that has been driven by lodging and recreation, officials have said.

State Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer told lawmakers growth has been steady over the last decade and that her agency is in the midst of creating a destination road map that will catalog New Mexico’s assets while identifying places where more investment can be made.

Francisco Valenzuela, director of recreation, heritage and wilderness resources for the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwest Region, said the federal agency also has to rethink the way national forests can meet visitors’ recreational needs.

He said forest managers still have a long way to go to modernize trails, camping spaces and boat ramps, but that the new outdoor recreation office can help with motivation and coordination.

“It’s like the sleeping giant is awaking in the outdoor recreation world and the question is how can we take advantage to help the citizens of the state, particularly rural citizens,” Valenzuela said.