Flanked by cactus and juniper, a pristine trail snakes through the high desert just outside New Mexico’s most populated area.
Sandstone canyons carved into the northeastern side of the state make for a remote bouldering and rock climbing paradise.
And not far from the Texas border, a collection of scraggly cottonwoods and poplar-type trees is a beacon for birdwatchers hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare winged migrant.
It’s not hard for Craig Johnson to boast about the pockets of potential across millions of acres of trust land that the State Land Office manages.
“New Mexico’s outdoor recreation resources are truly world class,” he tells The Associated Press, while noting that visitation still is less than neighboring states.
As head of the recently launched “Open for Adventure” campaign, Johnson said New Mexico’s status as an underdog in the outdoor recreation world will end up being an asset as other destinations in the U.S. Southwest become more crowded.
People already are taking note as New Mexico in 2019 began ramping up efforts to get more people outside through its creation of a new division of outdoor recreation within the state’s Economic Development Department. Part of the effort involves more communication among state agencies and local governments to find new opportunities.
At the Land Office, the number of recreation access permits issued in 2019 nearly tripled to more than 400, and officials with the agency say the goal is to keep building that number by identifying new recreational areas on state trust land and forming more partnerships with hiking, biking, rock climbing and other advocacy groups.
Part of the growth in interest over the last year stemmed from a collaboration between the Land Office and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition.
New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard last April signed a special use permit giving the coalition the ability to issue permits to users that allow them to lawfully access the portions of the trail that are on state trust lands. The agreement will be up for renewal this spring.
The Continental Divide Trail spans more than 3,000 miles in North America, with 820 miles of trail in New Mexico. State officials say thousands of people each year are drawn by the trail’s rugged beauty as it crosses mountain ranges and desert plains.
Johnson said future ideas for expanding the success of the Continental Divide Trail access agreement could involve other historic routes such as the Santa Fe Trail, Rio Grande Trail and El Camino Real – “the royal road” used by Spanish settlers centuries ago.
Other projects to be pursued by the Land Office include the climbing area near Roy; the Melrose Trap birding area in eastern New Mexico; the Nambe Badlands north of Santa Fe; and White Peak, which has been the source of legal and administrative fights for decades as hunters and others have sought access to public land amid an area of wilderness that often requires crossing through private property.
The Land Office is reaching out to potential partners to explore the use of trust land for annual events such as bike races and marathons. The agency also has property available for outdoor retailers such as REI or manufacturers like Nalgene and office space that could be leased to nonprofits involved in outdoor recreation.
Camping and eco-tourism are other options that will be explored over the next year, Johnson said.