New Mexico trail clash echoes culture war in western US

By Andrew Hay

TALPA, NM (Reuters) – Physical therapist Spencer Bushnell lives less than a mile from farmer Carlos Arguello in Taos, New Mexico. But they’re poles apart from proposals to intertwine the foothills they love with up to 71 miles of mountain biking and hiking trails.

The two men volunteered this year for a US Forest Service task force to deal with the growing demand for trails and the disappearance of public access to hills dotted with pinons and junipers after a post-pandemic surge of “Zoom boom” of new residents and owners of second homes.

It has put neighbors on the front lines of a culture war raging across the West as multi-generational families, conservationists and sometimes conservatives battle trail systems sought after by newcomers and locals alike. Recreation. Opponents say the trails will harm water supplies and wildlife, increase wildfire risk and fuel gentrification.

Two bike lane projects have been canceled in as many months on public lands in Oregon and Colorado. The Taos process divided the mountain resort town of 6,600 people.

Cutting hay bales from his fields irrigated with water from the foothills, Arguello said he and other “locals” in the group last month abandoned the process and withdrew their proposed trails – which included areas of exclusion for moose areas and cultural heritage sites. Locals didn’t want to be seen as advocating trails because of opposition from their community, he said. This left mostly proposals from pro-trail residents on the table.

“This is an assault on our watershed,” said Arguello, 67, who fears an international mountain biking destination is being created, rather than the vision of trail developers. a phased plan to increase the livability of the community over 15 to 20 years.

As the sun rose over Taos Mountain, Bushnell cycled past upscale homes lining the national forest where homeowners have built fences and gates for the past two years to block entry. “This community is losing public access to its own public lands,” said Bushnell, 41, who grew up biking on trails built in Bend, Oregon, when that town was booming.

Across the United States, Americans are moving to places with trees and trails, with many working remotely.

Trail use on public lands has tripled since the pandemic began, according to Carl Colonius, chief of New Mexico’s outdoor recreation division, which launched a demand management plan on the foothills of Talpa in Taos.

Studies from the think tank Headwaters Economics indicate that trails attract new residents and entrepreneurs, improving public health and tax revenue, but the influx can lead to less affordable housing and evict long-time residents unless the economies do not diversify.

In the tourism-dependent county of Taos, known for its mix of Indigenous, Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures, the average condo price has risen 69% since 2019 to $327,000, according to Zillow. Fewer than five percent of working households can afford the median home price in a county where the highest income bracket is households earning less than $15,000 a year, studies show.

The hardest-hit group has been Hispanos like Arguello — descendants of the settlers — whose share of the county’s population has fallen about 20 percentage points over the past two decades, from more than half to about a third, according to census data.

Darryl Maestas says the newcomers are showing a sense of entitlement when they offer to lay out a network of trails where Pueblo Indians and members of a Catholic religious brotherhood have held ceremonies over the centuries.

“Either the other side doesn’t understand or they don’t care and want it all anyway,” said Maestas, a farmer who returned to family land after three decades of working from South Korea to India. Afghanistan as an aircraft mechanic for the US Army.

The towering area was first taken from Native Americans by Hispanos, turned into commons by Spanish land grants, and then occupied by the USFS in the late 1960s after being clearcut by a logging company.

Housewife Emily Matheu moved to Taos from Oakland, Calif., four years ago and has been advocating for trails.

“I was told on the moms group that Taos no longer needs people here like me, people who move here from California and buy a condo and use the outside as their personal gym,” Matheu said. , 43, referring to a Facebook page. for mothers.

USFS District Ranger Michael Lujan said he will continue foothills community engagement about user disputes and forest damage on their 43 miles of informal trails.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Donna Bryson and Alistair Bell)

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