New Mexico’s multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation industry struggled in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic but was already recovering, officials said, as businesses reopened and visitation surged.

A study from the Bureau of Economic Analysis ranked New Mexico as 27th in the nation for outdoor recreation’s contribution to the state’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, with about 2% of the state’s GDP coming from the industry.

Montana was ranked first with outdoor recreation accounting for about 4% of its GDP, also supporting 26,000 jobs, the study read, and $1.12 billion in wages.

In total New Mexico’s outdoor recreation activities contributed about $2.07 billion to the state’s GDP of about $95 billion, records show, supporting 26,000 jobs and $1.04 billion in wages.

In 2019, the industry provided about 33,000 jobs, and 31 in 2018, the report read.

Last year was the first since 2012 that New Mexico’s outdoor recreation jobs fell below 30,000, read the study.

Tourism including hotels and food service made up the most jobs last year at 10,000, followed by 8,000 in retail trade.

But the numbers don’t take into account the state’s progress in connecting local communities with their recreational resources, said Axie Navas, director of New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division within the state Economic Development Department.

She told the Carlsbad Current-Argus that despite the pandemic disrupting travel, shipping and supply chains throughout New Mexico’s economy, the division worked closely with local communities to expand access and promotion of outdoor recreation in communities throughout the state.

“2020 was an anomalous year because of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. We saw some economic dips in the outdoor recreation industry,” Navas said. “Because of those main disruptions we saw some declines in the outdoor recreation industry. I think it was an anomalous year because we were already seeing some bright spots.”

That included a 30% growth in boating, fishing and RVing activities, along with a 10% increase in biking, and similar upticks in other outdoor activities in the state, she said.

Navas said trailheads used by hikers were more crowded this year than previously, as retail related to outdoor recreation and restaurants saw regrowth following the pandemic in New Mexico – a year when vaccines became widely accessible and many public health restrictions were lifted.

“That really speaks to this industry’s ability to rebound. It already is rebounding and has great potential moving forward,” Navas said. “I think we’re going to see that borne out by the next tranche of data. I am very much bullish on the fact that there has been forward progress.”

This increase in recreational participation would lead to future economic growth, she said, and could see the state rise in the rankings.

“That increase in participation translates to more economic gains. That’s not totally reflected yet in the BEA data,” Navas said. “In terms of the percentage, I think New Mexico can be No. 1. Of course, it’s always more complicated. Growth has to look like whatever is best for New Mexico.”

That means working with local communities and business owners as the division works to establish a resilient outdoor recreation economy in the long-term, Navas said, based on the specific needs of areas throughout the state.

The division this year awarded through its Outdoor Equity fund $898,000 in grant funding to 57 recipients statewide used to develop programs Navas said could get up to 20,000 children outside and participating in outdoor recreation.

Twenty-five projects received funding from the division’s Trails+ program that provides funding to local projects like hiking trails, rivers and wildlife viewing areas, totaling in about $560,000 in state funds.

“Our main goal is not just GDP, it’s making sure this economy grows sustainably. That’s economic development but also community development,” Navas said. “How do we make sure there is access to these opportunities. It’s that community quality of life. We’re striving for growth. We can be number one, but we have to do it in our way.”

Another $2 million was granted to New Mexico from the federal Economic Development administration to aid in the industry’s recovery, and the division was seeking a $10 million special appropriation from the state Legislature during next year’s session, Navas said, for further support.

“While we see some bright spots, we have to acknowledge that a lot of our outdoor rec business were hit hard by the pandemic,” Navas said. “We have to continue to invest in them.

“I think the BEA data shows us the outdoor recreation industry is hugely impactful in New Mexico. We should think about all the ways it benefits us in New Mexico and continue to invest in it. The economic gains will follow.”

More federal support could also be on the way as U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, introduced the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation (SOAR) Act in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

If passed, the bill would reform the process for issuing outdoor recreation permits, lower costs and shorten processing times, and allow permittees to engage in activities “substantially similar” to what they were permitted.

It was intended to improve outdoor access, Heinrich said, and make it easier for more Americans to take advantage of recreational opportunities.

“This is really about permit reform,” Heinrich said during the hearing where the bill was introduced. “This legislation really seeks to streamline that process to make it more user-friendly to make it more flexible.”

Meanwhile, fellow U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico sponsored the Biking On Long-Distance Trails (BOLT) Act late last month intending to make biking trails on federal land more accessible.

It would direct the U.S. Interior Department to identify at least 10 long-distance bike trails and areas to develop additional trails, while allowing the agency to publish trail maps, install needed signage and promote the trails along with publishing a report on the trails developed in compliance.

“In New Mexico and across America, there are millions of acres of federal lands that have gone untapped for responsible outdoor recreation use,” Lujan said. “This bipartisan legislation will make bike trails more accessible and safer across America and will provide a much-needed boost to the growing outdoor recreation economy.”