After failing in NMleg, Gov moves Outdoor Division anyway

After failing in NMleg, Gov moves Outdoor Division anyway

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration recently signed off on a plan to move the Outdoor Recreation Division from its home at the Economic Development Department to the Tourism Department, despite the fact that such a move was resoundingly rejected by a bipartisan committee earlier this year. In fact, even Republican Representative Alan Martinez said at the time of the hearing during the legislative session, “I don’t understand how promoting stewardship and preservation of New Mexico’s unique environment, enhancing public health, outdoor recreation assets… I don’t understand how this is in the purview of the Department of Tourism.”

It’s no secret that in the last few months we at ProgressNow New Mexico have been pretty critical of the governor for her lack of commitment on all-things climate. Besides not following through on her campaign promise to bring and pass a comprehensive emissions reduction bill through this year’s legislative session, and vetoing the handful of climate related bills that did manage to squeak through, we’ve also noted and maligned her for her appointment of an oil lobbyist to chair the Game Commission as well as her administration’s awarding of a substantial contract to a different oil and gas lobbyist to head up the state’s economic transition away from oil and gas.

And now her administration just signed off on yet another plan that benefits industry at the expense of New Mexico’s people, our land, and the hard work community, advocates, and lawmakers have done in the past to ensure at least the bare minimum of protections for these things.

Earlier this month, New Mexico’s groundbreaking Outdoor Recreation Division was administratively transferred from the state’s Economic Development Department to the Department of Tourism. If you missed it, don’t feel bad, from what we can tell there wasn’t much press coverage about it, and it was only really announced as a side note in another press release about Outdoor Recreation getting a new Director this week (more on this later).

But for those familiar with NM politics, you may remember that this was something attempted during this year’s legislative session, but shot down in committee when it was revealed that desire for this transfer came not from either department secretary or from the public, but directly from influential out-of-state business interests looking to get in on the permanent funding that had passed to fund the Outdoor Recreation Division earlier in the session.

New Mexico was an early adopter of the idea of a state office focused on uplifting and promoting the virtues of outdoor recreation and the literal billions of dollars it brings to the state. More importantly, our Office of Outdoor Recreation had a really special focus on promoting outdoor recreation opportunities SPECIFICALLY to historically marginalized communities right here in New Mexico. In fact, while the creation of the office was largely supported on bipartisan lines, advocates around the state worked extra hard to ensure that funding and focus of the office would abide by the idea that:

“As we focus the OOR’s mission of attracting tourists and outside investment to benefit New Mexico’s economy, we should also focus on giving those same recreation and education opportunities to the underserved youth of our state – a state that has fallen to last in child well-being, hunger, and education, and second-to-last in childhood economic well-being. If we do not simultaneously invest in our children and give them the opportunity to enjoy the same public lands and natural resources we are trying to promote to visitors, we will be once again failing our most precious resource, the youth of New Mexico.”

Over 30 organizations, including ProgressNow New Mexico, signed onto a letter that spelled this out exactly to the governor and the legislature. And it happened! The inclusion of an Equity Fund was part of the creation of our NM Office of Outdoor Recreation! And as stated above, we made that funding permanent earlier this year!

As of this week, that office is now being shifted from its original administrative location inside the Office of Economic Development to the Tourism Department.

In the later half of the legislature this year, Republican Representative Gail Armstrong introduced HB 475 for the express purpose of transferring the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division from the Economic Development Department to the Tourism Department. Her expert witness was Kerrie Romero, Executive Director for the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides.

It’s worth examining some of that hearing to understand just why this administrative decision to move the department anyway is so egregious. During the hearing, both Republicans and Democrats seemed puzzled by the bill, asking repeatedly “who’s asking for this” and we learned fairly quickly that no one was, at least no one other than the multi-million dollar out-of-state lobbyists. Thanks to a series of questions from Representative Charlotte Little, the real aims of this move were quickly uncovered. The people using the funds just aren’t bringing enough Return On Investment, they are “end users.” When asked directly “where this bill is coming from” Rep. Armstrong and her witness admit that the bill is coming from “the business community.”

In a particularly gross answer to a question about why this move was needed, Romero responded in a very patronizing tone, “The Economic Development Department, since the creation of the Outdoor Recreation Division, has really focused on funding the user segment of outdoor recreation; so the hikers, the bikers, the residents who are participating in these free activities. And that’s great, that’s fantastic, but there really hasn’t been that much emphasis on the business aspect or building the existing economy or attracting new businesses.”

We find out later in the hearing that neither Secretary of either Department was consulted before this bill was brought forward. Considering neither Secretary commented on the press release this week, or has to date commented publicly in the press about the move this month, we wonder if they’ve still not been consulted.

The only real press about all of this has centered on the new Director of the OOR, and given what we now know about how and presumably why this move is being made, we have some serious reservations about this hire as well. Karina Armijo was the director of marketing AND TOURISM for the town of Taos. One of her major accomplishments listed in the press release is that she advocated for state law about lodgers tax to be applied to “short term rentals,” essentially opening the floodgates for companies like Airbnb to come in and drive home prices up, adding to the housing crises in New Mexico.

So we have a lot of things happening all at once here.

The first is the “spirit” of New Mexico’s Office of Outdoor Recreation as passed was one of centering New Mexicans, specifically Native, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities. That spirit is completely meaningless when viewed through the lens of tourism.

Secondly, and this is where we have to tie it directly back to other “questionable” decisions from the administration this year, there was an attempt made during this year’s legislative session to make this move and it was stopped cold in committee. A few months later the Governor’s administration just took unilateral executive action to do it anyway.

This is exactly what advocates feared when they worked on the Office of Outdoor Recreation in the first place.

Congressman Gabe Vasquez, then the Deputy State Director of The Wilderness Society here in NM, said at the time, “Working with underprivileged kids in land that they’ve never gotten to experience — whether (it’s) rafting the river, or fishing, or hiking in the Organ Mountains — is an impactful thing for our community. We have to seize on this opportunity. If the state is going to invest in creating this office of outdoor recreation, let’s make some demands.” 

Given all that we’ve seen from the governor in the last year or so regarding climate and environmental issues, you can understand why we’re apprehensive about this change. As signers and celebrators of the original passage of the Office of Outdoor Recreation with the inclusion of the Equity Fund, we love what this office does, has done, and will hopefully  keep doing.

Now we fear what might come from being housed under the Tourism Department. And look, we want folks to come and enjoy what we have here in New Mexico of course, especially as we look to Open New Doors for our economy in the coming years as oil and gas dry up. But especially in the wake of what happened in Maui recently, we are all too familiar with what happens when locals are pushed out by tourists, when marginalized communities have to compete for access to their own traditional landscapes with outsiders with deep pocketbooks. We need to ask ourselves if this move was the right one for New Mexico’s people, or just Big Business.

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