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Public lands a tonic for our health and NM’s economy

By CINDY ROPER

I’ve always used our nation’s public lands as a respite from daily life. As a child, I lived for family camping trips to the mountains or day trips to our state park on the beach. As an Army veteran, I’ve seen the life-enhancing impact of natural spaces on myself and my fellow service members. As a mother, I’ve had the incomparable joy of watching my own daughter grow up among the wide open spaces of America’s public lands. While the great outdoors has always been special to me, in the past eight months it has become particularly critical for my emotional health and well-being. Hiking on our trails has kept me elastic both mentally and physically during this time of great global stress.

And isolation at home vs. isolation out hiking are, thankfully, vastly different things. I am a solo senior female, but when I go into the woods, I’ve never felt alone or lonely. On the contrary, I’ve never felt more connected – to my country, to my fellow citizens, and to myself.

Perhaps the great naturalist John Muir described it best when he said, “And into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” Muir’s prescription is precisely what we need right now to let go of tensions and experience a shared connectedness.

Coming out of a volatile and divisive election season, with a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic looming over holiday plans, we each look to find our sacred spaces.

We look to our newly elected leaders as well in the hopes that they can unite us by making decisions that best serve our communities, our families and our precious resources. Working together to protect and expand public lands and waterways is one of the simplest and most effective decisions legislators can make in the upcoming session. Over the past few years, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have made great strides toward protecting the public lands we all enjoy – permanently authorizing and then fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the nation’s premier source for safeguarding special landscapes and cultural heritage sites, and addressing the massive national park maintenance backlog, both as part of the overwhelmingly bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act.

I am excited to see a public lands advocate such as Senator-elect Ben Ray Luján joining public lands champion Martin Heinrich in the U.S. Senate where, no doubt, he’ll work to build on this momentum, continuing the excellent leadership of outgoing Sen. Tom Udall to advocate for public lands and the benefits they provide to New Mexico’s communities.

Public lands are more than a tonic for our health, they also bolster our local and state economies. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, active outdoor recreation contributes $9.9 billion annually in consumer spending to New Mexico’s economy, supports 99,000 jobs, which generate $2.8 billion in wages and salaries, and produces $623 million annually in state and local tax revenue.

The Census Bureau reports that, each year, 947,000 people participate in hunting, fishing and wildlife watching in New Mexico, contributing $823 million to the state economy. The well-being of the outdoor industry will be critical in recovering from the economic damage caused by COVID-19.

Almost certainly, this new year will not be without struggle. I look forward to it, nonetheless, and a new Congress in January. I am excited to see how our leaders will make our voices heard in Washington, especially our desires to enhance access to protected outdoor spaces, a desire in which I know I am not alone.

The quest for public lands is important; the public health and economic benefits of New Mexico’s public lands are sweeping. We have a richness of landscapes in New Mexico not found in many other states – from rose-colored deserts and White Sands in the south to Valles Caldera and forested mountain wildernesses in the north to five major rivers statewide, including the 196-mile-long Rio Grande. I consider myself truly blessed that I will never lack a new spot to lose my mind and find my soul.

Cindy Roper lives in Santa Fe.

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