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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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New Mexico’s small towns have been reinventing themselves through the state’s endless outdoor recreation opportunities. Historical mining and extracting industries have been declining since the mid-20th century from the influx of cheap internationally sourced labor and sources for precious metals. This has left many mining communities reeling from the change in demand. While many small former mining towns continue to struggle to adapt to a radical shift in their economy, others have embraced their isolated locations to lure adventure seekers and nature lovers.

One New Mexico town has completely reimagined its identity to change with the times and take advantage of the burgeoning outdoor recreation industry. Nestled in the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico, the Village of Questa has established itself as a gateway to the endless outdoor recreation opportunities that northern New Mexico has to offer. Questa lies near the junction of Highway 38 and Highway 522; both lead to wilderness areas nearby. 

Questa is a former mining town once dependent on a Chevron-owned molybdenum mine. The mine was the area’s primary employer, but since the price of molybdenum has been on the decline since the 1970s, there have been a series of layoffs. The mine officially closed in 2014, laying off 300 workers in the process. The mass layoff for such a small community would usually spell disaster, but the village had other plans. Through the establishment of the Questa Economic Development Fund, with Chevron’s help, Questa took proactive steps to diversify its economy away from the mine. The fund helped lay the groundwork for Questa to capitalize on the abundant natural resources at its doorstep. 

In 2013 former President Barack Obama established the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, which protects nearly 250,000 acres of public land around the northern Rio Grande. The national monument, just a few miles north of Questa, includes areas that are designated as wild and scenic river areas.

The Paper. spoke to the Questa Economic Development Fund Director Lynn Skall about how Questa has benefited from its outdoor recreation economy. “We have this tremendous opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers to come into Questa, use this as a base camp, and thoroughly take advantage of the lands that are protected and available to the public,” Skall said.

Skall noted that the investments and efforts by the village have started to pay off. “It’s changing the community in a positive way by creating additional traffic, but it’s the kind of traffic that we want. We want people who respect the land, the environment who are looking for some adventure,” Skall said. “We are seeing an increase in traffic because people are looking to go to outdoor recreation areas that aren’t very highly populated because they want to be away from people.

“This is something that is moving forward with a lot of support from the community as well foundations and the state to focus on outdoor recreation as an economic driver for the communities.”

The town’s growing outdoor recreation appeal has also helped it weather the worst of the pandemic. As cities across New Mexico closed down, many social-distancing-weary residents looked to the isolated Sangre De Cristos to beat the crowds. “We are seeing more traffic coming through even despite the isolation and some of the lockdowns,” Skall said.

New Mexico lawmakers have also heralded New Mexico’s outdoor recreation economy as a sustainable economic path for many rural New Mexico towns to follow. Senator Martin Heinrich, one of the foremost conservationist advocates in the state, has been a long-time advocate for New Mexico’s outdoor recreation economy. New Mexico’s public lands and outdoor recreation industry are in an ideal position to help our economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Senator Heinrich stated in an email response to The Paper. The senator added, “If we are going to expand New Mexico’s outdoor recreation economy, I believe we need a modern vision for outdoor recreation that reflects the ways in which all individuals and communities in the United States, and especially in New Mexico, engage with and benefit from outdoor recreation.”

Questa is not the only New Mexico town that has benefited from its location. In the southwest corner of the state, Silver City has established itself as a major outdoor destination in the American Southwest. The city is located at the base of the Gila Wilderness, boasting over three million acres of unparalleled solitude and outdoor opportunities. 

Similar to Questa, Silver City was able to weather the worst of the pandemic, thanks in large part to its robust outdoor appeal. “We have a lot of people coming out here. With the pandemic and the way things were, all through 2020 and the first half of 2021, people were trying to get away, trying to get out into the wilderness. We did have a steady stream of people wanting to get out in nature. What better way to social distance yourself when you’re at 8,000 feet?” director at the Silver City Grant County Chamber of Commerce Steven Chavira said.

Silver City’s proximity to the Gila has also bolstered the town’s downtown and cultural attractions from visitors returning from the Gila. “As the stopping point before getting into the Gila, the town of Silver City and Grant County, we have a lot of offerings for people coming here to visit. There has been a lot of effort put into the arts and culture portion of our community. The downtown revitalization and Mainstreet and all that they do to make sure that there is plenty to offer for them, as well as regular cleanup and beautification efforts going on around the county to make sure that first impressions are always positive,” Chavira added. 

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, New Mexico’s outdoor recreational economy directly contributed to 35,000 jobs in the state and added a further $2.2 billion to the state’s economy.

New Mexico’s outdoor recreation economic revolution is expected to continue growing, and the results have been nothing less than convincing. Once the victims of a changing global economy, New Mexico’s rural towns and counties have bounced back thanks to their access to the state’s abundant natural and sustainable resources. 

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