New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division (ORD), within the Economic Development Department, is leading an effort to protect the waters that drive our state’s $2.4-billion outdoor recreation economy. From rafting to fly-fishing to hunting to irrigating, our rivers and streams are an integral part of the outdoor economy, creating jobs and generating revenue for the state and local communities.
With support from local stakeholders, ORD is proposing to nominate over 100 miles of new outstanding waters along the Rio Grande and Rio Hondo, and in the headwaters of the Jemez River. If successful, this effort would protect the water quality of these rivers in perpetuity for surrounding landowners and community members, acequias, hunters, anglers, birders and friends and families who come from near and far to recreate along their banks. Currently, ORD is gathering feedback from local community members and plans to publish a draft version of the petition for public review by summer 2021.
Protecting these surface waters will translate into tangible economic gains for the surrounding communities and New Mexico. Numerous studies show the link between protected public lands and waters and a host of economic and other benefits — from increased job creation to higher incomes to improved public health outcomes. New Mexico’s outdoor recreation industry is a powerhouse in the state’s economy. In 2019, the outdoor economy added $2.4 billion to the state’s gross domestic product and directly employed over 35,000 people. This economic growth is fueled in large part by the popularity of boating, fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, skiing, and snowboarding — activities that take place in record numbers within the three exceptional watersheds ORD is proposing to nominate as ONRWs.
In order to protect the waters’ ecological, recreational, cultural, and economic significance, the state must invest now in these rivers. ONRW designation represents a public commitment to the future of these waters and to the communities that rely on them.
The upper Rio Grande, from the New Mexico-Colorado border to the confluence with the Rio Pueblo de Taos, is one of New Mexico’s top outdoor destinations. The 52.2-mile stretch encompasses some of the best fishing, whitewater rafting, and hiking on the planet, attracting residents and visitors from around the world year-round. This segment of our state’s iconic Rio Grande runs through the heart of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. The preserve was established by President Obama in 2013 to protect the awe-inspiring scenic, cultural, and ecological values that attract sightseers, anglers, and river-runners. The Taos Box, a 17-mile segment of rowdy rapids coursing below the 800-foot black cliffs of the Rio Grande Gorge, was named one of the top 32 waterways in North America by Outside magazine. The Rio Grande Gorge area saw over 179,000 visits to trailheads, campgrounds, and picnic sites between October 2019 and September 2020, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Beginning as high elevation tributaries in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Taos Ski Valley, the Rio Hondo and its tributary, the Lake Fork, wind their way through one of New Mexico’s most popular outdoor recreation destinations. Each year, thousands of hikers walk along these waters on their way to the state’s highest point, the 13,159-foot summit of Wheeler Peak, and popular destinations like Gold Hill and Williams Lake in the Columbine-Hondo and Wheeler Peak Wilderness Areas. The Rio Hondo has special significance to the state’s skiers and snowboarders due to its proximity to the Taos Ski Valley. During the winter of 2018-2019, alpine skiers in New Mexico spent $142.3 million during more than one million skier days.
The trout fishing is a draw too. Since 1998, these waters have attracted thousands of anglers each year to fish the cold, high-elevation waters of the Rio Hondo watershed, which are important to protecting habitat for populations of Rio Grande cutthroat trout, New Mexico’s state fish and a significant cultural icon.
The Jemez River and its main tributaries draw high numbers of visitors seeking opportunities to immerse themselves in the great outdoors without traveling far from urban centers like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, while also appealing to out-of-state tourists visiting iconic New Mexico landmarks like the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The East Fork Jemez River and San Antonio Creek are located within the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a popular recreation area in our state. The sweeping and singular beauty of the Caldera attracted approximately 50,000 visitors in 2019 — visitors who came to hike, camp, fish, hunt, horseback ride, cross-country ski, mountain bike, observe wildlife, and view the night skies. The Jemez National Recreation Area (JNRA) borders the Valles Caldera National Preserve at its southwest corner. The 57,650-acre JNRA, established in 1993, is one of only 40 Congressionally established national recreation areas in the nation. It’s the only such area in New Mexico.