Never Ending Development at Taos Ski Valley

By KAY MATTHEWS

Despite the dearth of snow in November and December, by January Taos Ski Valley (TSV) was packed with skiers from all over the country—particularly from Texas and Colorado—many of whom were holders of the special Ikon ski pass that greatly expanded skier days during the 2021-2 season. Numerous magazine articles have discussed the impacts of the pass on ski areas across the west as well as their struggles to attract a diminishing skier population and diminishing resource—snow.

That doesn’t seem to deter billionaire TSV owner Louis Bacon’s already implemented developments and plans for expansion, however. The Taos Ski Valley Master Development Plan was just released last week by Carson National Forest and is open to public comment under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) regulations. The deadline for public comment is May 7. The expansion includes new chairlifts, restaurants, hiking trails, and a gondola that would ferry people from the base to the Kachina Basin.

Plans for a gondola had already made a public appearance last October when the Kachina Base Area Master Plan was presented in a zoom meeting by the Taos Ski Valley and Design Workshop, the contractor that had been working on the development plan in the Kachina Basin. A “scaled down” version, negotiated with the existing landowners in the basin, includes hundreds of commercial and residential structures, roads, parking areas, trails, and a gondola on the 57 privately held acres. The public was initially given one week to comment, but after numerous appeals for more time, the deadline was extended another week. Downstream communities weren’t consulted in the planning on even this “scaled down” development, and many letters to the editor and complaints were filed. Downstream Rio Hondo acequia commissioners arranged meetings with TSV to express their concerns about the impacts on the Rio Hondo and community acequias and considered asking for a moratorium on further development. Norden told them that the project was on hold for now, due to internal delays, but several commissioners I spoke with don’t doubt that it will return in one form or another. I emailed Jessica Garrow of the Design Group and David Norden, TSV CEO, to ask about the current status of the Kachina Base Master Development Plan but haven’t heard back from either party.

The gondola was also a $10 million component of the “Taos Region Clean Energy Transportation and Recreation Corridor” proposal that was submitted by CEO Norden to the Taos County Commission on February 22 for its endorsement. In a zoom public hearing almost all those who commented questioned the use of public funds—$110 million of the funding was American Rescue Protection Plan money and $1.4 million TSV funding (see budget below)— for what seemed to be an economic development project primarily benefiting TSV. At the end of the Taos County commission hearing Norden withdrew his request for county approval and the state legislature reconsidered the funding, which was reduced to $5 million. According to Rio Hondo parciante Phaedra Greenwood, Norden then met with Rio Hondo commissioners to see if they supported the ecological components of the proposal that would thin the forest and take out blown-down trees as fire mitigation and monitor the Rio Hondo for pollution, especially in the Amizette area where many residents are on septic tanks, some close to the river. Norden said TSV would bow out of the project to pursue it’s own agenda while the commissioners decided on a fiscal sponsor and scope of the project.

Now the gondola is an official component of the Taos Master Development Plan submitted to the Forest Service as the holder of the permit for the ski area. The development plan was first accepted by Carson National Forest in October and is now in its “scoping” period, accepting public comment. Here’s the list of project components from the TVS Affidavit of Publication:

•  Construct a gondola connecting the Frontside base area to the Kachina Basin base area;

•  Replace Lift 2 and Lift 8;

•  Construct a water tank and booster station;

•  Construct a restaurant at the top of Lift 7;

•  Relocate and expand the Whistlestop Café;

•  Construct a hiking trail in the vicinity of Lift 4; and

•  Develop a snowshoe and Nordic trail area at the northern end of Taos’s SUP [Special Use Permit] area.

In its scoping letter, the Forest Service states that since the plan was developed in 2021 “Various public engagement and outreach meetings occurred during the planning process of the 2021 MDP to develop and refine concepts for improvements at Taos.” I don’t know to what extent this is true: as La Jicarita readers know, we’ve been reporting on the proposed Sipapu Master Development Plan, in one form or another, since 1996! The current iteration of the plan that’s now before the Carson was first promulgated in 2012. The number of meetings with communities and organizations has happened over a period of 10 years. When did TSV begin “engaging” with the public? And with whom did it “engage?”

The scoping letter lists the following objectives of the proposal:

  • Improve winter out-of-base lift capacity and guest dispersal across the mountain;
  • Increase non-vehicular transportation between the Frontside and Kachina Basin base areas;
  • Address the deficiency of indoor on-mountain restaurant seating and increase on-mountain guest service space;
  • Increase storage and pump pressure of water on the Frontside for snowmaking and fire suppression purposes; and
  • Increase the variety of nature-based, non-Alpine skiing recreation opportunities available at Taos.

Replacing Lifts 2 and 8 is the proposed way to improve “winter out-of-base-lift capacity” as they’ll carry more people faster up the mountain. The gondola is the proposal for increasing “non-vehicular transportation between the Frontside and Kachina Basin.” The scoping letter states that the gondola would relieve traffic on the Twining/Kachina Road, which accesses the basin and was originally built as a maintenance road. The road is currently used to access homes, the two restaurants in the basin, and the Williams Lake Trail into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness. If the Kachina Base Area Master Plan is actually implemented, the gondola would of course serve all the new residences and businesses in the basin. But would it also restrict those hikers and skiers who want to access the wilderness area by driving to the trailhead of Williams Lake? Would they have to pay to ride the gondola instead?

Increased snowmaking at a ski area always raises the question of whether more water rights will be acquired. The scoping letter says, “It is important to note that these projects [snowmaking and water pumping] will not increase the current water uptake from the Rio Hondo. Taos [TSV and Village of TSV] will continue to hold a diversionary right of 200 acre-feet, or 65.2 million gallons of water from the Rio Hondo annually.” I was unable to confirm that figure via the Office of the State Engineer. In a 1987 academic article in the “Annals of Tourism Research,” UNM Professor emeritus Sylvia Rodriguez, now a resident of Valdez, noted that the ski area’s first acquisition of water rights was in the late 1960s when it acquired 10.9 afy on a Des Montes farm it purchased. There have been numerous transfers over the years, almost all from the Hondo valley acequias, but it’s not the within purview of this article to try to document them.

 The proposed Nordic area would be developed near the maintenance area and Williams Lake Trail: “This area has been previously disturbed through the 2018 Highway 150 Corridor Wildland Urban Interface Project, where mechanical thinning was performed by tracked vehicles to decrease the fuel loads within the area. It is anticipated that this previous project work would reduce the amount of disturbance necessary to implement the proposed snowshoe and Nordic trails.” Anyone who’s hiked up to Williams Lake over the past few years has seen what that looks like: basically trashed mechanical thinning rather than human chainsaw thinning.

Written comments on the scoping letter should be addressed to:

Forest Supervisor James Duran
Winter Sports Coordinator Paul Schilke,
P.O. Box 110, Questa, N.M. 87556, 575-587-2255

Electronic comments may be submitted online through the project page: fs.usda.gov/project/?project=61390.

Once the scoping period is over the agency will release either a Draft Environmental Assessment (DEA) or a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to present a series of alternative actions that will be open to public comment. The scoping letter says the project will be analyzed under an EA, but many folks are asking that it come under an EIS, a more thorough analysis process. Not that many of us have much faith in the NEPA process, whether we’re talking U.S. Forest Service or Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s often just a pro forma exercise to justify a proposed project that the agency has already accepted. But, as Rio Hondo parciante Phaedra Greenwood puts it,” We have to make our voices heard and let them know that we care what happens to our watershed. No one owns the Rio Hondo. Water belongs to all of us. In these times of severe drought, wildfires and dramatic climate change, we must de everything we can to protect our rivers.”

 

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