If the Forest Service were ever to deny a ski expansion based on protests by locals, the recently approved Santa Fe Ski Area plan would have been the perfect candidate.
A local 1994 newspaper poll found that
70 percent of Santa Feans opposed the expansion into the Big
Tesuque, a high mountain basin just south of the existing ski area.
The area is both sacred land for Native Americans and popular with
Santa Fe urbanites who like it undeveloped.
the city and county had passed resolutions against the Big Tesuque
expansion in 1992 and again in 1994, and the opposition united
people who typically don't work together, says Paige Pinnell, a
member of the main opposition group, the Ski Area Containment
Coalition. The group's fundraisers at La Fonda restaurant were some
of the few times in Santa Fe, he recalls, where Native Americans,
Hispanics and Anglos ate, drank and plotted against a common enemy
For a while, coalition members thought
even the Forest Service was sympathetic. In a 1994 draft
environmental study, Santa Fe Forest Supervisor Al Defler suggested
a preferred alternative that allowed 75 acres of expansion but
ruled out the lift penetrating Big Tesuque, which means "cotton
Then, flip-flop: Defler reversed
his stance in the final environmental impact statement Dec. 18. The
final plan will allow the ski area to grow from 585 to 891 acres by
building three new chairlifts on public land, including the
controversial Big Tesuque lift. The ski area will also build an
800-space parking lot and will operate a commercial mountain-biking
enterprise during the summer.
angered nearly everyone except ski area owner Benny Abruzzo and his
family - well-known developers from Albuquerque - and alpine skiers
eager to ski the "Big T" bowl.
More than 500
Santa Feans took to the Plaza Jan. 15 in protest. Carrying signs
that read, "It's still our mountain ' fight for it!" the crowd
listened to fiery speeches by seven of eight city councilors, the
governors of the Tesuque and Nambé pueblos and Santa Fe Mayor
"I'm mad as hell," Jaramillo
told the rally. "They didn't look at protecting the forest. They
looked at protecting Abruzzo's wallet."
the coalition's groups had its reasons for opposing the expansion.
For the area's Indian pueblos, such as the
Nambé and Tesuque, the plan was unacceptable because the basin
contains sacred shrines as well as hunting trails with religious
importance - sites whose location the Indians wanted to keep
The Forest Service tried to address
those concerns by the creation of a traditional use district for
Native Americans near the ski area. The agency also promised that
no known sites would be destroyed during
For environmental opponents,
objections to the expansion included traffic congestion,
degradation of wildlife habitat, and water quality and quantity
problems. The ski area is currently being sued by opponents of the
expansion for taking too much water.
underlying issue united all the project's detractors: growth.
When asked why he opposed the ski area, Max
Cordova, a Hispanic leader in Truchas, N.M., said, "A lot of our
people aren't skiers," he says. "It's like supporting a golf course
if you don't care about golfing. There will be benefits with
tourist dollars, but at the cost of something that is dear to the
people - the land and the forest."
expansion opponents resent what Santa Fe has become; they're
fighting to keep the city from becoming a high-priced playground
for the super rich (HCN, 2/5/96). While the ski area makes up only
a small part of the tourist economy, it's an easy target since it's
largely the haves, and not the have-nots, who would enjoy the
With all that opposition, why did
Forest Service Supervisor Defler change his mind?
Agency spokesman Robert Remillard says Defler
changed his mind in part because he didn't get any support for the
plan he endorsed in the draft environmental study. Only 3 percent
of the written comments supported his "compromise" option which
called for opening up 75 new acres but not the Big Tesuque. On the
other alternatives, opinion was polarized: Roughly 46 percent
wanted to open up the Big Tesuque while 47 percent recommended the
coalition's "citizen's alternative," a plan that would have limited
development to upgrading the area's existing terrain.
Coalition members claim that most comments
supporting the Tesuque expansion came from out-of-town skiers, who
won't live with the repercussions. Remillard says the agency needs
to look at national needs for recreation, as well as local
Defler also argued that people were
already skiing in the Big Tesuque. During the 1994-95 ski season,
the Forest Service rescued 31 backcountry skiers from Big Tesuque.
If the ski area had a lift there, he reasoned, the Forest Service
could hand over management of the basin to the ski company.
But to many Santa Fe residents, Defler's
arguments don't seem compelling. They wonder if Defler sided with
the ski area out of frustration when he realized the coalition
wouldn't endorse his compromise. Critics argue the switch was
inevitable; the Forest Service has never seen an expansion it
didn't like, they say.
Coalition members have
also accused Defler of timing the Forest Service decision to take
advantage of recent splits between urban Anglo environmentalists
and rural Hispanics over firewood gathering in the Carson National
Forest (HCN, 12/25/95).
But those groups are
coming together again, says Sam Hitt, a Santa Fe environmentalist
who was hung in effigy last fall by local Hispanics angry over
firewood cutting restrictions. The coalition plans to appeal the
decision, he says, and if the fight goes to court, the city has
promised to join the group's lawsuit.
For more information,
contact Robert Remillard, U.S. Forest Service, Espaûola Ranger
District, 475 20th St., Suite B, Los Alamos, N.M. 87544
(505/667-5120) or Victor Martinez, Ski Area Containment Coalition,
P.O. Box 1101, Santa Fe, N.M. 87504 (505/471-1509).