UNM's O'Donnell: Outdoor recreation alone probably won't be enough to save many rural places

While new data show most of New Mexico’s rural communities are shrinking, some are hoping outdoor recreation opportunities can turn them around.

The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau show rural communities in the Land of Enchantment are losing people to metropolitan areas.

Towns like the village of Questa near the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument and Silver City at the base of the Gila Wilderness are investing in the outdoor recreation economy to revitalize their communities, The Paper reported.

“This is something that is moving forward with a lot of support from the community as well as foundations and the state to focus on outdoor recreation as an economic driver for the communities,” Questa Economic Development Fund Director Lynn Skall told The Paper.

So far, it’s working for these towns. Skall said they are seeing a lot more traffic.

Michael O'Donnell, acting director for the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said it’s a reasonable idea considering how well-endowed the state is with natural resources.

“New Mexico has everything from mountains to deserts and everything in between,” he told The Center Square. “The opportunities available to people to engage in outdoor activities is really broad. I know that that is a particular industry or sector that the economic development organizations are really interested in trying to market the state as being a really good place to engage in those activities. I definitely think that’s a thing that these communities could pursue.”

But O’Donnell said that having a wilderness area nearby and investing in outdoor recreation by itself isn’t going to be enough.

“The thing that you want if you are pursuing that strategy is other economic infrastructure there as well,” he said. “So you want things like hotels and restaurants; you want things like places people can buy stuff and stimulate the local economy. To the extent that some places already have that infrastructure in place they’ll be better positioned to capitalize.”

Also, rural towns don’t have a monopoly on outdoor recreation opportunities, O’Donnell points out. Many metro areas are already close to such activities, cancelling the need to relocate to a remote town in many cases.

Viewing outdoor recreation as a savior to all rural communities’ economic woes probably isn’t a good thing, he said.

“Pinning your hopes on any one thing is probably not a very good strategy just in general,” he said.

Diversifying one’s economy is important to stabilize a community, according to O’Donnell. He adds he understands that in New Mexico it can be hard to do that given the low population density.

“Whether [outdoor recreation] will completely change the fortunes of these areas, I don’t know – probably not in many places,” he said. “But I think in some places it could.”

View original post