Santa Fe ski area growth enrages locals

  • Santa Feans rally against the Santa Fe Ski Area

    Pablo Alcala/The New Mexican

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Eagle County balks at fourth mega-resort.

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.

Both 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 together.

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 tree place."

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.

Defler's switch 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 Debbie Jaramillo.

"I'm mad as hell," Jaramillo told the rally. "They didn't look at protecting the forest. They looked at protecting Abruzzo's wallet."

Each of 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 secret.

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 construction.

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.

But one 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."

Many 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 improvements.

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 concerns.

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.

Elizabeth Manning is an HCN staff reporter.

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).

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