Out of doors tourism within the West reels from wildfires and drought

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Every summer, many people leave their muggy cities in places like Texas and Oklahoma for the mountains of northern New Mexico. Francisco Guevara, owner of Los Rios River Runners in Taos, has been taking these tourists up the Rio Grande since the ’70s.

“Usually we get swamped with business at this time of year, we turn away dozens of people every day,” he said.

But this year, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history caused some people to reconsider their travels.

“We’ve lost 80%, 85% of our pre-season bookings,” Guevara said.

Between climate change and a historic drought that has turned western forests into tinderboxes, wildfires are getting longer and more intense. That’s bad news for some rural towns that rely on outdoor tourism.

In addition to the canceled bookings, Guevara said the northern New Mexico National Forests are closed due to fire hazards, making many of its most popular rafting routes impassable.

“We have to reorient ourselves and reinvent ourselves,” he said.

About 20 miles west of Taos, in the village of Angel Fire, Brent Dunn is also feeling the pinch of forest closures. He runs an outdoor gear store called Mountain Sports of Angel Fire.

“I’d say conservatively that we’re going to see a 20% drop in sales,” Dunn said.

Business at his store is picking up after failing to rent mountain bikes or outfitting too many backpackers in the spring. Instead, wildland firefighters were among his most frequent customers.

But between the shrinking ski season and the expanding wildfire season, Dunn says business owners in his rural mountain community are on their toes.

“You can’t expand or fully phase out if you will. Because you just don’t know. Maybe you’ve had a good season one year and a bad one the next two,” Dunn said.

And it’s not just the wildfires themselves, says Natalie Ooi, who studies outdoor recreation economics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“There’s a fire in New Mexico, we’re seeing the impact of the smoke and the impact on the air quality in Colorado.” And who wants to go camping when there’s smoke in the air?

Ooi said that even a few slow summer weekends can really hurt a city where a mountain range, river or desert canyon is the most important economic factor.

“One of the reasons so many rural communities in the west are turning to tourism is that they’re rural,” Ooi said. “The ability to attract other industries is limited.”

But more intense wildfire seasons and other complications of climate change are changing the calculus for these cities. That’s true of Bend, Oregon, a town still recovering from a devastating wildfire two years ago.

“Life in Bend in 2020 was like a summer that didn’t happen,” said Katy Brooks, who runs the Bend Chamber of Commerce.

She said tourism has picked up again in the summer of 2021. Fires were no longer burning nearby, and the pandemic made trips to the mountains attractive. This year it’s inflation.

“People drive here because the airfares are so expensive,” Brooks said, adding that most of the tourism boom is coming from nearby cities like Portland, Seattle and Boise.

For these visitors, camping in the Cascades is currently one of the more affordable ways to vacation. Brooks said some companies in Bend are finally starting to recoup losses from two years ago.

“So there’s a little bit of ‘making hay while the sun is up’ that happens,” Brooks said.

Because another natural disaster could be just around the corner.

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