SANTA FE, N.M. — One of New Mexico’s greatest draws is its natural beauty and the ample opportunities to enjoy that beauty.
A bill moving its way through the U.S. Congress will help not only preserve that beauty but keep it accessible to the public.
On June 17, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act 73 to 25, a move Greg Peters, advocate with Conservation Voters New Mexico, called a bipartisan victory.
Peters said the Act does two things. It provides funding to address the backlog of maintenance at state and federal parks. Second, it ensures the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps pay for the creation of high quality recreation areas, remains flush with cash.
“With full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Peters said. “We can protect our wildlife, way of life, culture, and access to the outdoors, while creating economic opportunity for small towns across New Mexico.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been used to help create outdoor recreation opportunities in almost every community across the state, many dating to the 1960s. Most New Mexicans have probably themselves used at least one of these sites.
Jesse W. Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said there are many examples of wilderness areas that will benefit from the act but inner city, urban communities have created outdoor recreation places with the fund.
“It’s especially important now,” Deubel said. “There has been an increased love and enthusiasm for public lands because of Corona.”
Elephant Butte Lake is a popular destination for boaters and campers alike. The lake was created in the early 1900s by a man-made dam. LWCF grants in the ’70s and ’90s helped further develop the areas for recreational use. The popular Tingley Beach along Albuquerque’s Rio Grande bosque as well as the river itself and the Petroglyphs, which features several trails, have benefited from the fund. Tent Rocks, the Gila National Forest, Bandelier National Monument and the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge have all used LCFW grant money to improve their recreational opportunities.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. co-sponsored the bill and said the outdoor industry in New Mexico is a major economic driver.
“America’s public lands are at the very core of who we are,” Udall said in a news release. “…Families in New Mexico and throughout the nation enjoy access to millions of acres of public lands for hiking, camping and fishing because of LWCF. And investments in our public lands fuel our economy, and our way of life.”
A 2020 report published by the New Mexico Outdoor Division, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham created in 2019, said outdoor recreation contributes $2.3 billion annually to the state’s gross domestic product and creates 33,500 jobs.
The fund was created by Congress in 1964 in an effort to protect natural areas, waterways, and sites of cultural significance and heritage. However, the money behind the fund has never been a guarantee. Congress frequently siphons money from it for other priorities.
Since its inception, Peters said the Land and Water Conservation Fund has only been fully funded twice. The Great American Outdoors Act, Peters said, guarantees the fund will now receive its designated $900 million every year, which comes not from taxes but royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling.
Deubel said the fund is costing the taxpayers nothing.
“I know it’s a little bit of irony because the extraction can have a negative impact on the environment sometimes,” Deubel said. “But it helps preserve and protect wild spaces and across the country it funds parks and fields.”
Just last year, it appeared the fund was in serious jeopardy when Pres. Donald Trump put forth a budget proposal that slashed the fund to a mere $8 million. A few Republican senators set out to change his mind and were successful. Trump has said publicly he will sign the Great American Outdoors Act if it comes across his desk.
Ahead of the vote, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who was also a co-sponsor, had this to say.
“We have protected such incredible with the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Heinrich said. “…This is a bill that is going to allow us to ensure that every kid is within walking distance of a neighborhood park.”
Deubel and Peters are optimistic the bill will pass the House, which is controlled by Democrats. However, whether it will pass as presented or when it will be heard is unknown.
“We are hopeful they will take it up in the next few weeks,” Peters said. “And we hope it’s a clean bill with no amendments. We may not have another chance like this.”