Every summer, many people abandon their sweltering 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 tourists rafting on the Rio Grande since the 1970s.
“Usually at this time of the year we are busy, we refuse dozens of people every day,” he said.
But this year, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history has forced some people to rethink their travel plans.
“We lost 80%, 85% of our pre-season bookings,” Guevara said.
Due to climate change and a historic drought that has turned western forests into powder kegs, wildfire seasons are getting longer and more intense. This is bad news for some rural towns that rely on outdoor tourism.
In addition to canceled bookings, Guevara said the national forests in northern New Mexico are closed due to fire danger, making many of his most popular rafting routes impassable.
“We have to scramble and reinvent,” he said.
About 20 miles west of Taos, in the village of Angel Fire, Brent Dunn also feels the forests are closing. He runs an outdoor gear store called Mountain Sports of Angel Fire.
“I would conservatively say we’re going to see a 20 percent drop in sales,” Dunn said.
His store business picks up after the spring, when he wasn’t renting out mountain bikes or outfitting too many tourists. Instead, wilderness firefighters were among his most frequent clients.
But between the shortened ski season and the extended wildfire season, Dunn says business owners in his rural mountain community are on edge.
“You can’t expand or operate at full capacity if you want. Because you just don’t know. You can have a good season one year and a bad season the next two,” Dunn said.
According to Natalie Ooy, who studies the economics of outdoor recreation at the University of Colorado Boulder, it’s not just the wildfires themselves.
“In New Mexico fire, we’re seeing the effects of smoke and the impact on air quality in Colorado.” And who wants to go camping when the air is full of smoke?
Even a few slow summer weekends can take a toll on a city where a mountain range, river or desert canyon is the main engine of the economy, Ooi said.
“One of the reasons why so many rural communities in the West are turning to tourism is the fact that they are, you know, rural,” Ooi said. “The ability to bring in other industries is limited.”
But more intense wildfire seasons and other complications of climate change are changing the calculations for these cities. This is true of Bend, Oregon, which is still recovering from a devastating wildfire two years ago.
“Life in Bend in 2020 was like a summer that never happened,” said Kathy Brooks, who heads the Bend Chamber of Commerce.