Vacation Overcast

Wildfire impacts and public land closures make for a bad start to summer tourist season

The water levels in the Rio Grande are “really good right now” for rafting, Cisco Guevara tells SFR. The upcoming Memorial Day weekend would normally be peak season for his rafting business, but just six clients are booked for Saturday.

Two people have signed up to raft the Rio Grande on Sunday with Los Rio River Runners, Guevara’s company.

Guevara says the wildfires and subsequent closures have heavily impacted his business, which is still recovering from the halting nature of the pandemic.

“COVID definitely hammered us, but we saw some improvement, we saw some light at the end of the tunnel. And now, these fires pretty much put that light out,” says Guevara.

The wildfires, making national headlines over the last month, have deterred would-be visitors from visiting Northern New Mexico. While the tourist season should be ramping up, business owners like Guevara have instead seen the number of visitors slow to a trickle with little hope things will improve given the uncertain future of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.

Elana Lombard feels for her neighbors “over the hill” who have been forced from their homes by the flames and smoke. “But here in Taos, it’s still nice,” Lombard tells SFR, noting the air quality has been good—apart from two smokey days—and the fire hasn’t significantly impacted day-to-day life.

The same cannot be said for her business.

Lombard is a fixture in the Taos business community, having run Mudd N Flood for over 20 years. She says with the fire, the summer tourism season has seen a slow start.

She’s noted a decline in customers at her outdoor gear shop and she says her experience reflects that of other business owners in Taos. Some, Lombard says, have had to reduce staff hours to break even.

Guevara echoes that dilemma.

“One of the big problems because of the pandemic was I have half the staff that I’m normally used to. And now because I don’t have enough work for that half, I’m starting to lose some of them, too,” Guevara says.

A concert, featuring Thievery Corporation, originally scheduled for Taos was relocated to Santa Fe as a consequence of the fire.

Another headache for Guevara is the National Forest closures, which have cut off several of his rafting routes. Last week the Santa Fe National Forest issued a closure order, prohibiting “public access across the entire 1.6-million-acre forest due to active wildfires and extreme fire danger.” Carson and Cibola National Forests also closed.

Guevara normally guides rafts on a section of the Chama River, which goes through the Santa Fe National Forest. He adds that another section he rafts on the Rio Grande, near White Rock, is also closed—leaving only upper sections of the Rio open to rafting companies.

The last time Santa Fe National Forest closed completely was in 2018, when officials issued a forest-wide closure due to high fire danger.

Chantel Herrick, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest, says concerns about public safety prompted the most recent closure, though she’s aware of the decision’s impact on businesses.

Herrick says the agency hopes to open the forests on July 18, a date she says the forest service revised after public feedback. But the forests’ reopening isn’t guaranteed, Herrick says. It will depend on the level of fire danger.

To reverse the closure, Herrick tells SFR, the forest service isn’t looking for two or three rainstorms. “No, it needs to be a consistent amount of rainfall before we look at lifting restrictions,” she continues.

The forest service will look at the fire danger and the energy release component, which generally measure the ability for fuels to burn, around the forest before making the decision to welcome visitors back to the public lands.

Randy Randall, Santa Fe’s director of tourism, says the season “has been a little bit slower coming in than it might normally be. There was still availability last week from Memorial weekend and normally the hotels would be pretty well booked up by then.”

He adds that businesses downtown and along the Cerrillos corridor have not been impacted as much as hotels further from town, such as the Four Seasons Resort northwest of Santa Fe.

Despite the sluggish start to the summer tourist season, many hotels and events are selling out, Randall says.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency requested to use the city’s convention center for office space while the fires burned, but Randall says the city had to decline because events including the Santa Fe Literary Festival had already reserved the facility.

To better inform tourists making the decision to visit Santa Fe, Randall directs people to the wildfire informational page of the city’s visitor website. Additionally, he shares updates he receives from the Fire Department with hotels to ensure the same, accurate information is disseminated to potential visitors.

Guevara hopes to see an increased number of reservations in the coming weeks.

“Water level is really good right now and the Taos Box is open,” says Guevara, referring to a well-known, 16-mile stretch of whitewater on the Rio Grande. “So if people are looking for some extra fun, now’s the time to go.”

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