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Lawmakers propose state office of outdoor recreation

SANTA FE – Two southern New Mexico lawmakers are pushing for the state to create an office of outdoor recreation, which they say would help the state flaunt its natural landscapes and tap into a lucrative industry.

Hikers head up a trail with their dogs at the Santa Fe Ski Area in this 2010 photo. Two lawmakers from southern New Mexico are pushing for the state to create an office of outdoor recreation. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

But the ultimate success of the idea could hinge on New Mexico’s gubernatorial election this fall.

A number of other Western states – including Utah, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming – have in recent years created similar state government offices that vary in size and scope.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat, said such an office in New Mexico could further bolster an economic sector that already generates $9.9 billion in annual consumer spending and an estimated 99,000 jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

“It’s something that can bring economic development to all parts of the state,” said Steinborn, who along with Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, introduced a legislative memorial last year calling for a study of the cost and impact of an office of outdoor recreation.

However, Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration opposes the idea, saying it would be redundant because the existing state Tourism Department and Economic Development Department already promote New Mexico’s outdoor recreation industry.

“There’s no need to create more government jobs to perform work that’s already being done,” said Mary Elizabeth Robertson, a spokeswoman for the state tourism agency.

She also said state leisure and hospitality job numbers have increased steadily since 2011.

But with Martinez scheduled to leave office at the end of this year, Steinborn and other proponents of the idea say they plan to pursue the issue under a new governor.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Michelle Lujan Grisham has indicated her support for the plan, while GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce has expressed skepticism but hasn’t ruled it out.

Meanwhile, Steinborn said he envisions the office of outdoor recreation would be staffed by four to six employees and be housed within an existing agency. It’s unclear how much that might cost.

Overall, New Mexico contains 9 million acres of national forest land and roughly 13 million acres of land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The state is also home to multiple ski areas, bike races and hiking trails.

State agency mergers or eliminations have to be authorized by the Legislature, though governors have in the past used their executive authority to create state offices. For instance, then-Gov. Bill Richardson ordered that a state office be created in 2010 to deal with the implementation of Obamacare.

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