Not “the Usual Pie in the Sky” | Study: Outdoor economy poised to grow with Wild and Scenic designation
By Geoffrey Plant | Silver City Daily Press
November 27, 2020
According to a U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report released a couple of weeks ago, New Mexico’s $2.4 billion outdoor recreation economy accounted for 2.2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product in 2019, and supported 35,000 jobs. In a separate report, also released this month, market research firm Southwick Associates found that water-based recreation along the Gila and San Francisco rivers supports roughly 5,000 jobs worth more than $92 million in income, and helps draw visitors to southwestern New Mexico who spend around $427 million each year.
About half the respondents to Southwick’s polling said they would use the river more if it were designated Wild and Scenic.
“Assuming a direct relationship between days of use and spending by river users, we can estimate the economic effects of a Wild and Scenic designation,” the study states. “Recreation spending by users of the river could increase from $144.2 million to $386.3 million” and spur the creation of as many as 3,597 more “ recreation-related jobs tied to the increased river usage.”
“Those numbers give us even more reason, if needed, to protect rivers in our state,” Axie Navas, director of New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division, wrote in a “Letter from the Director” last week. “One key effort to do just that currently sits with the U.S. Senate. In May, Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall introduced [the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act] in Congress to designate the Gila and San Francisco as Wild and Scenic rivers. If passed, this bill would keep the Gila vital and free-flowing for generations to come.”
Despite gaining wide-ranging support among local governments and outdoor advocates, a group of agricultural and mining interests strongly opposes the legislation, and is lobbying in Washington, D.C., to kill the bill.
The Heritage Waters Coalition maintains that the Gila and San Francisco rivers are “working rivers,” with irrigation structures that contradict the legislation’s characterization of them as “free-flowing.” The group argues that protections that come with federal designation will restrict existing and future river-dependent industries like ranching and mining, and will largely serve as a mechanism for the federal government to infringe on water rights and personal property ownership.
The bill’s sponsors maintain that the designation will protect existing river uses, and note that there is language written into the legislation that explicitly states those protections.
Earlier this month, Navas was joined by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, Silver City MainStreet Executive Director Charmeine Wait, Southwick Associates’ vice president of research, Lisa Bragg, and several outdoor industry advocates and preservationists for a press conference on the potential boost that Wild and Scenic designation could give to the economy in southwestern New Mexico.
“ At the end of the day, we’re talking about rivers,” Navas said, adding that the Gila River system is “ one of the most unique, spectacular places on this planet. I am grateful to live in a state … that prioritizes protecting these places. Growing the outdoor economy in this state benefits all of its residents, from the youngest New Mexicans who benefit from the Outdoor Equity Fund, which was created right here in southwestern New Mexico, to our businesses like Silver City’s own Gila Hike and Bike.”
The Outdoor Equity Fund was established by the same 2019 legislation that created the Outdoor Recreation Division of the state’s Economic Development Department, and is intended to “ provide low-income New Mexico youth, as well as youth from communities of color, with outdoor recreation opportunities, awarding grants to tribes, pueblos, nonprofits and schools,” according to a 2019 press release from the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
In October, Southwest New Mexico Arts, Culture and Tourism — a Silver City-based organization that seeks to foster economic development in the area through education, cultural and historic preservation and the promotion of tourism, arts and events — received one of the first-ever grants issued by the Outdoor Recreation Division. The group is using the money to implement the first phase of an ambitious project planned for the historic Silver City Waterworks Building on Little Walnut Road that will connect hikers to the Continental Divide Trail a few miles north of town. The focus of the grant is to create a 35-foot-diameter outdoor pavilion behind the building, as well as fund 1 mile of trail between the old waterworks — which lies just across Silva Creek from the Silva Creek Botanical Gardens and is adjacent to Jose Barrios Elementary School — and Penny Park.
Bridgette Johns, swnmACT project coordinator, told the Daily Press that while the townowned property has undergone rehabilitation in fits and starts over the past four decades, the timing of the group’s present plan to turn it into an educational resource and waystation for CDT hikers — with a campground, kitchens, bike rentals and a museum — couldn’t be better. She said the proposed Wild and Scenic designation is poised to spotlight southwest New Mexico just as public interest in outdoor recreation is at an all-time high.
“And we’re determined,” said Lee Gruber, executive director of swnmACT, who added that the collaborative spirit shared by New Mexico’s congressional delegation, Silver City, Grant County and numerous community stakeholders enables the group to overcome the hurdles faced by all projects involving “ money and politics.”
Silver City Town Manager Alex Brown is enthusiastic about the project.
“The ideas that are being discussed and moved forward aren’t the usual pie in the sky,” Brown said. “ And they are being presented with options in sustainable design, construction, maintenance and long-term operations.
“This site is one of the original sources of water for the town, and one of the foundations of our community,” he added. “ It’s a perfect example of reuse that can be sustainable and benefit the quality of life in the area.”
During this month’s press conference, Wait said that the proposed designation would enhance and promote southwest New Mexico’s image, and make it a more attractive destination for water-based outdoor recreationists.
“This designation would be another reason to visit this area,” Wait said, adding that research shows many people who live elsewhere tend to imagine the landscape around Silver City as resembling the home of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.
“The New Mexico Department of Tourism has done focus groups that show people outside of our area think we’re in a desert,” Wait said. “ AWild and Scenic Rivers designation would help tourists realize that there are wonderful rivers and mountains to experience here.”
Drawing outdoor tourism to the area would foster new business development, and might even eventually draw outdoor recreation-related manufacturing to southwestern New Mexico, according to Wait. In the shorter term, she also believes it will help communities like Silver City recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have a lot of businesses that are barely hanging on, and if we can get an influx of tourists through this designation, that will help them survive,” Wait said, adding that future industry growth will create jobs and career opportunities that don’t currently exist in the area. “Maybe we can have some new ideas, and also actually get business succession, where we have young people who don’t want to move away from the area who can take over these businesses.”
“Conservation can be a catalyst for growing the economy, especially in rural communities,” Heinrich said. “This [Southwick Associates] study, which surveyed people living both in New Mexico and Arizona before the pandemic, found that, if we were to designate the Gila and San Francisco rivers as Wild and Scenic, we could attract millions more in new economic activity each year and create new jobs, right when we need them.”
As an example of that activity, Gruber told the Daily Press that swnmACT has been hosting a “CO.STARTERS” entrepreneurial program to assist would-be business owners with developing their ideas. Kelli McKee, who plans to open a new 5.6-acre campground between Silver City and Pinos Altos, is one of two dozen entrepreneurs to have completed the program.
“It’s going to be a primitive-based campground starting with six sites — no RVs — with a living pond, laundry, restrooms, a sauna, eventually,” McKee told the Daily Press. “Hammocks, hogans — somewhere you can bring a sleeping bag or a tent for a back-to-nature sort of thing. And we want to create a safe place where people can learn to camp responsibly, have a chance to reset and learn about this beautiful area.”
Slated to open in June, the Enchanted Canyon Campground is relatively close to the Continental Divide Trail and to a bird sanctuary.
“We want to teach primitive fire-building skills, teach people about the surroundings,” McKee said. “Education is a big component when it comes to how we keep this place beautiful. Right now, it’s trashed out.”
During the pandemic, the number of people visiting the Gila National Forest has swelled to unprecedented levels, demonstrating the viability of the outdoor tourism industry but also begging the question: How does wilderness preservation coexist with increased human activity?
Informed strategy and thorough planning is the way to sustainably increase access to public lands, according to Heinrich, who noted that the Gila has relatively few visitors compared with other national forests.
“When you look at the visitor days on the Gila compared to the White River in Colorado or some place like that, we have a relatively low number of visitor days,” Heinrich said. “And if we rebuild our trail infrastructure, we would have the ability to spread out visitation across the landscape. That’s really key: that we need to manage the visitation in a way that protects the resources.
“The Gila reaches — and this is one of the reasons for nominating it for Wild and Scenic — are so wild when so few places are,” Heinrich continued, adding that the annual $900 million Land and Water Conservation Fund is a fundamental resource for building out a smart management plan.
“We need to design our infrastructure in such a way to distribute our visitors across the landscape, so we don’t imperil those things,” he said.