As anyone who has visited a busy trailhead or tried to buy a bike in New Mexico recently can attest, the state’s outdoor recreation economy has evolved significantly over the last few years.
Which is why a new report from the Montana-based research firm Headwaters Economics might come as a bit of a surprise at first glance.
The report, published last week, used industry data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to measure the number of jobs and share of Gross Domestic Product the industry generated at the state and national level in 2020. The report ranked New Mexico 27th – between Oklahoma and Kentucky – for the share of state GDP derived from the outdoor recreation in 2020, down from 24th a year prior. That percentage dropped from 2.5% last year to 1.9% this year, according to the federal data.
While the COVID-19 pandemic caused outdoor recreation employment numbers to drop nationally, New Mexico’s decline was steeper than the nation’s. The state lost nearly 22% of its jobs in the industry, compared to 17.1% nationwide, according to the report.
So, what gives? Why was the decline so steep in a state that recently established an outdoor recreation office and encouraged residents to spend time outside to avoid spreading COVID-19? And, more importantly, what does it say about New Mexico’s effort to target outdoor recreation jobs and employers?
The answers, as you might guess, come down to what counts toward the nebulous category of “outdoor recreation.”
Megan Lawson, economist for Headwaters Economics, said the firm uses BEA’s definition of outdoor recreation, which includes traditional categories like fishing, cycling and skiing alongside broader categories, including leisure and hospitality and manufacturing, where they intersect with the outdoors. For example, Lawson said areas like gear manufacturing and hotel jobs would count toward the total.
And that helps explain the issue: the majority of the jobs counted in the survey – in New Mexico as well as nationally – are in the “retail trade” and “arts, hotels and food services” sectors, which were among the hardest-hit industries in the country. During the worst points of the pandemic, New Mexico’s leisure and hospitality industry lost around a quarter of its pre-pandemic jobs. Lawson said the combination of state mandates and travel restrictions designed to restrict the spread of the virus contributed to the job loss in New Mexico and elsewhere.
“There wasn’t any one state that was spared those impacts,” Lawson said.
Axie Navas, director of New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division, said there was actually a lot to be optimistic about once you get past the top-line numbers. Digging into the data, Navas said New Mexico fared relatively well with regard to what the BEA terms “conventional outdoor recreation,” including hiking, camping, boating and cycling.
“All of those nature-based activities … saw growth,” Navas said.
Navas acknowledged that New Mexico’s ski industry saw declines last year due to extended closures, but most other forms of outdoor recreation saw growth. For example, she cited data showing that cycling’s economic impact grew by about 10%, and the boating industry’s impact grew by around 30%.
“There’s some real bright spots when you start to dive into the data,” Navas said.
The big question, for Navas and Lawson, is: how many of those bright spots from an anomalous year can carry over once travel, by far the largest spending category, begins returning to pre-pandemic levels. While we won’t have complete answers to that for another year, at least, Lawson said she was surprised to see travel spending stay as strong as it was nationwide.
“I think that shines a light on the economic opportunity that outdoor recreation presents for communities, that even in a pandemic, it still has the power to bring visitors in and bring that spending in,” Lawson said.
Given how volatile travel and hospitality spending has been during the pandemic, Lawson advised states to build up segments of the outdoor industry that rely more on local visitors, like gear manufacturing and trail construction.
Along those lines, the Journal’s Dan McKay reported that New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division plans to ask lawmakers for $10 million in one-time funding during the legislative session in January, $7 million of which would go toward expanding the Trails+ grant program. Navas said expanding the state program, which supports projects like trails, river parks and wildlife crossings that enhance communities outdoor opportunities, will allow the state to fund more of the applicants, rather than a small fraction.
“I think it’s more important than ever before to lean into the outdoors,” Navas said.
Stephen Hamway covers economic development, health care and tourism for the Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.