This is my op-ed that the Santa Fe New Mexican used to coincide with the visit of the President and his family To Carlsbad Caverns yesterday.
When President Barack Obama and the first family visit Carlsbad Caverns, they will experience a state where our prosperity and way of life have long been rooted in the health of our land. Clean water from our forests feeds our crops. Forage from our rangeland grows our cattle. And the magic of our open spaces draws visitors, workers, and businesses to the Land of Enchantment.
Yet New Mexico’s open spaces are disappearing fast. A new study by Conservation Science Partners and the Center for American Progress found that between 2001 and 2011, our state lost 319 square miles of natural area to development – an area bigger than the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.
The state, meanwhile, recently made headlines for having one of the worst-performing economies in America. New Mexico’s unemployment rate is at 6.2 percent, which ranks 46th in the nation. Our land and our economy are hurting.
Unfortunately, New Mexico’s leaders have long overlooked the relationship between our state’s natural beauty and our economic health. As a consequence, New Mexico is falling behind. Among the Western states, New Mexico has one of the lowest proportions of national parks, wilderness, and national monuments. Just 6 percent of the lands within the state are managed primarily to be protected for future generations — half the average of other western states.
What does this have to do with the state’s lagging economic growth? The answer is simple: national parks and other public lands are the engines for a booming outdoor recreation industry. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in the U.S. generates $646 billion in consumer spending each year. While New Mexico’s outdoor industry is $6.1 billion strong, it lags far behind nearby Arizona and Colorado, which boast $10.6 and $13.2 billion outdoor industries.
In today’s West, hunting, fishing, climbing, and mountain biking are big moneymakers, attracting businesses, workers, and visitors to the state. With New Mexico’s already meager protected lands and fast-disappearing natural areas, our outdoor industry is at a structural disadvantage to our neighboring states.
Although oil and gas extraction has long been a pillar of our state’s economy, it was also the primary cause of natural area loss between 2001 and 2011; in just 10 years, we added 184 square miles of oil and gas wells, drilling pads, and energy infrastructure to the landscape, carving wildlife habitat into increasingly smaller sections.
As other states in the West have been diversifying their energy mix and economy, our state leaders have been putting all their eggs in the oil and gas basket. Instead of continuing to gamble on one industry whose reserves will one day dry up, our state’s leaders should be looking at ways to incentivize conservation and to take advantage of the growing recreation economy. Indeed, research points to the ability of communities with outdoor amenities to weather economic downturns.
New Mexico has been fortunate, thanks in part to the leadership of Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to benefit from two national monument designations during the Obama administration:Río Grande Del Norte and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. Protecting these beautiful and ecologically rich areas will bolster small businesses and local economies. In fact, visitation at Río Grande Del Norte has increased by 40 percent since it was designated as a national monument.
But more can be done. It’s time for a broad assessment of what we want to protect for future generations. Instead of focusing on how to squeeze more oil from the ground, we should be thinking about how to better protect the icons of New Mexico’s landscape, from the greater Gila area to Otero Mesa, before they are lost.
Jim Baca served as the director of the National Bureau of Land Management at the Department of the Interior in the first Clinton Administration, was twice elected New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands, and served as the mayor of Albuquerque.