The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was a focal point during the Outdoor Economics Conference
AZTEC — Outdoor recreation is taking on a more important role in New Mexico as communities view it as a key to economic diversification amid the changing energy landscape, but the COVID-19 pandemic put some of those efforts on hold.
As he welcomed hundreds of attendees to the New Mexico Outdoor Economics Conference this week, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the virus has led the tribe to shut down tourism on its lands.
Organizers discuss pandemic's impact on outdoor recreation in online call
The pandemic’s impacts took a central focus in the conference discussions.
Originally set to occur in Farmington and showcase some of the unique outdoor recreation assets in the community, the conference moved to a virtual setting as the state shut down large gatherings in an effort to prevent spreading COVID-19.
The organizers hope that the conference can take place in Farmington next year and state Outdoor Recreation Division Director Axie Navas described the city as a true leader in the state in terms of enhancing and advancing the outdoor recreation economy.
Jessica Wahl, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, said the pandemic and travel restrictions led to people exploring and enjoying local trails. It also illuminated the uneven access to outdoor recreation in the country. Wahl said going forward it is important to increase access for both tourists and locals.
Wahl said as governors urged residents to stay local and avoid traveling during the height of the pandemic in the spring "a lot of people took to the trails outside their homes."
If another pandemic occurs or if the COVID-19 pandemic worsens and people are asked to avoid travel again, Wahl said it is important to make sure everyone has access to opportunities to be active and healthy.
New Mexico Human Services Department Secretary David Scrase said there are many health benefits of being outside including improved cognitive function and reduced stress.
While the pandemic led to communities hitting the brakes in terms of actively marketing for tourists, outdoor recreation has become more popular.
More people using trails than ever before
This trend has been noticed in Farmington. Mayor Nate Duckett said in the past six months the city has seen more people using the trails than ever before.
Duckett spoke about how the city developed the Jolt Your Journey brand and began focusing on developing an outdoor recreation economy, including passing an increased gross receipts tax that in part is used to fund outdoor recreation projects like trail building.
"You want to tout yourself as an outdoor recreation hub, but you want to make sure that you're living up to that standard when people show up," he said.
Duckett also emphasized the importance of community buy in as well as partnerships. He said Farmington has partnered with San Juan County, the Bureau of Land Management and Navajo Nation in its efforts to develop an outdoor recreation economy.
While the Navajo Nation is not welcoming tourists at this time, Nez outlined his vision for a robust tourism network that would encourage visitors to spend multiple days on the tribal lands and in surrounding communities. He spoke about a tourism loop that would take visitors to multiple attractions. Some of the New Mexico attractions he mentioned include the Chuska Mountains, Shiprock pinnacle, Bisti Badlands, Churchrock and Chaco Culture National Historical Park. While tourists are visiting, Nez said they can stay in communities like Shiprock and Crownpoint.
"The Navajo Nation has unlimited outdoor tourism and recreation possibilities," he said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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