Santa Fe County expects to lead visitors on just one more tour of a historical mining camp in the Ortiz Mountains, with future access to this coveted piece of open space remaining a mystery in the coming months.
Last week, the Santa Fe Botanical Garden decided to drop the tours, fearful that there might be an accident on the rocky road that leads to the camp—otherwise known as the Ortiz Mountains Educational Preserve.
Terry Lease, in charge of the county's facilities and operations as they pertain to open space, tells SFR the gate leading to the last two miles of road will remain locked until the county decides how to best manage the 1,350 acres of land.
"At least until we figure things out," Lease adds.
County open space officials also took a fresh drive up the road and are set to brief the Santa Fe County Board of Commissioners within the month on a proposed transition plan.
Lease says there is a possibility that the preserve will be treated in the interim like Petroglyph Hill in Galisteo, where tours are conducted occasionally, even though it is off-limits to the general public.
The Botanical Garden, which sold the preserve to Santa Fe County in 2007 for $380,000, had managed the land under a special service agreement with the county. But that deal expired five years ago, and in recent months, the county and the nonprofit failed to reach a compromise on who would be held liable in the event of a vehicle accident.
On May 15, the nonprofit's board decided that the road was too much of a risk and voted to cease all tours, effective immediately. Since then, Clayton Bass, chief executive officer, has been taking heat for the decision, especially in light of the fact that there have been no accidents in the 14 years that the tours have been organized.
Bass tells SFR that managing the preserve didn't square with the nonprofit's master plan on Museum Hill.
"I love the preserve just as much as anybody else, but we're taking a different direction these days," says the 63-year-old Bass during an impromptu tour amid the backdrop of thriving plants and contemporary sculptures.
With its fledgling pear trees and life-size art alongside lavender and rose bushes, the garden, for better or worse, is a far cry from the old late-1800s mining camp, what with its rusty tools, outhouse and countless abandoned and boarded-up mines.
In the span of three years, the Botanical Garden on Museum Hill went from a series of dirt paths amid juniper and piñón to 2.5 acres of developed area and plans to include up to 14 acres.
"It's an outdoor living space," Bass says, pointing to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance. "Look at the view. It's amazing. It's sweet."
And none of it could have happened, he readily admits, without the sale of the preserve.
"It was the spark," Bass says of the sale, adding that 20 percent of the proceeds went to maintaining the preserve, while 80 percent went into the planning and orchestrating of the garden.
Of course, it also took a lot of fundraising, says Bass, who joined the nonprofit two and a half years ago. The garden sits on land owned by the city and the state. The nonprofit pays the rent yearly, and its volume of visitors keeps climbing—from 30,000 last year to 40,000 this year, he says.
Now, docents fear the mountaintop land could be forgotten. LAC Minerals donated it to the Botanical Garden in 2001 under the terms of a settlement of an environmental lawsuit over pollution, yet some of the volunteers who conducted tours there say the reduced public access violates that deal.
Bass says the nonprofit's garden, which displays traditional New Mexican techniques of catching water to prevent runoff, falls very much in sync with the environmental spirit of the settlement, which intended the land to be used for the benefit of the community.
It's just a different piece of land, he says.
Millie McFarland, one of several docents who has taken an active interest in the preserve and is disappointed in the turn of events, says she hopes the county will find another group to manage the land.
Lease says the county is trying to figure out whether that's the next step. Meanwhile, the planned final tour of the preserve is booked up, so everyone else who wants to see the land likely has to wait until the county resolves the matter.