The Last Mile

Ortiz Mountains preserve road dubbed too dangerous for cars

We're driving up the last mile of a rocky road that leads to what essentially is an outdoor mining museum in the Ortiz Mountains.

It's a piece of public property known as the Ortiz Mountains Educational Preserve, but the official name doesn't really do it justice.

In less than a few minutes, I will step out of the four-wheel-drive vehicle, walk up a set of stairs and survey what used to be a mining camp.

Rusty mining tools—artifacts from the 1880s—are scattered on the rocks. There's a semblance of an old outhouse where gold miners once squatted; ruins of a boarding house where they once slept; deep and dark mining shafts that now serve as home to bats; and, of course, the obligatory historical markers that were erected long before Google emerged on scene.

The only problem is that we're not supposed to be driving up this last stretch of road. It has hairy turns, occasional steep drop-offs and no guardrail. As such, the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, the nonprofit that manages the preserve and arranges tours there, decided a few weeks ago that the road was too dangerous to drive.

Simply put: It didn't want to be held liable for any accidents.

The unilateral decision has left at least a dozen dedicated docents, many of them frail and too old to hike the road, mystified as to why it was made. For the past 14 years, they've been driving hundreds of tourists and locals up this same rocky stretch—with not one accident.

They're still holding out hoping that the SFBG might reverse its decision, even though the garden's board of directors put out a press release Friday announcing the change. In the meantime, they recruited me to drive up the road with them and take a look for myself.

My company: Millie McFarland, 69, her husband, Jim McFarland, 68, and a woman who shall remain nameless because, as she said, "I don't want to get involved in the politics."

They dialed in the combination and unlocked the big barbed wire gate, and we began the 2-mile ascent where Gold Mine Road ends just past the town of Cerrillos (otherwise known as County Road 55).

It could very well be one of the final drives to the top of the preserve before the vehicle ban becomes official.

"Do you feel in great peril?" asks Millie McFarland, turning to me in the back seat as the vehicle slowly lurches, churning through mounds of mud that materialized after the recent rains.

I remained silent. I'm supposed to objective in all this, as a reporter. But I thought to myself, Boy, I should have popped some sort of motion sickness pill.

That orange juice I drank earlier was starting to slosh around in my stomach. At what price, rebellion?

But my immediate company wouldn't characterize it as such. Instead, what right, they ask, does a private entity like the Botanical Garden have to shut off a county road to the public? To them, their presence was a matter of principle.

In reality, the legal status in managing the 1,350-acre preserve is already in limbo due to the property's tricky ownership legacy. Under the terms of a settlement agreement, the last gold mine operators on the mountain, LAC Minerals Inc., were forced to donate some land to a local nonprofit as a form of environmental payback for having contaminated the groundwater with sulfuric acid and cyanide through its extractive practices.

The Botanical Garden was the lucky recipient. But the property taxes were just too much for the small nonprofit, and so, in 2007, Santa Fe County bought the land for $380,000 and then drew up a service agreement that allowed the SFBG to manage the property.

That deal, however, expired five years ago, leaving SFBG's chief executive officer, Clayton Bass, more than a little bit worried about liability.

So at the beginning of the May, when seasonal hikes and tours typically begin in earnest, Bass put the kibosh on vehicle traffic, which has since led to a slight insurrection among some of the docents, who've long grown accustomed to hauling tourists up there for fun.

But Bass insists he's not limiting access. He's just limiting vehicle access.

"We've dodged a bullet so far," he says.  "We're not closing down the road. We're just saying if you want to see the preserve, then you're going to have to see it by foot. You're going to have to hike up there, not drive.

"I love that preserve," he adds. "I would never want to do anything to inhibit its access."

Particularly disturbing, Bass says, is that the nonprofit has no control over who drives up the mountain. While he trusts his docents, he doesn't trust those he doesn't know. How could he? He doesn't know their medical conditions. He doesn't have their driving records. Anything could go wrong up there, he says.

Short of installing a guardrail to protect the vehicles, he doesn't really see a quick fix to the problem.

"It's just a fact of life," he says. "There are places where some people just weren't meant to go. I'm a middle-aged, physically capable guy, and there are places that I can't hike to. We all have our limitations, and I think we should just accept them."

But older docents don't think that's fair.

While many of them are in great shape and could make the trek by foot, many say they won't make the last mile without a car, and whether that last mile will be gated off still remains to be seen.

Meantime, Millie McFarland has been burning the midnight oil, trying to come up with solutions.

One possibility, she says, is to find another nonprofit to manage the preserve. Another would be to outright fix the road to make it safer.

And Santa Fe County doesn't seem too interested in keeping the road open, either.

Terry Lease, in charge of the county's facilities and operations as they pertain to open space, explains that the entire 2-mile road still belongs to LAC Minerals; the county cannot afford to fix the road, and if it did, the company could change its easement agreement—and all the work on the road would go for naught.

"And we're not talking about an easy road to fix," he said. "This is a steep road. It would take a lot of work and a lot of money."

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