The Galisteo Basin Preserve, a 9,500-acre expanse of Puebloan relics, wildlife habitat and panoramic scenery that represents one of Santa Fe’s most innovative approaches to environmental protection, is living on borrowed time.
The Los Alamos National Bank has filed a foreclosure suit stating that the owner of the preserve, the nonprofit Commonweal Conservancy, owes $5.4 million in overdue loan payments — excluding interest. Ted Harrison, the conservancy’s president, says the organization still hopes to raise enough money to retain control of the preserve.
John Gulas, the CEO of Los Alamos National Bank, declined to be interviewed, saying through a representative that the bank was unable to comment on matters concerning ongoing litigation.
Located 14 miles south of the city limits near Lamy, the preserve boasts the largest publicly accessible trail systems in the county, with 28 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian paths meandering across arroyos, through willow and cottonwood groves and along sandstone ridges that offer soaring views of three mountain ranges.
Harrison says 4,500 people visit the preserve each year with people on the trails almost every day.
The preserve is a haven for an array of wildlife — including 130 species of birds, small herds of deer and antelope and migrating bobcats, black bears and cougars.
If the conservancy loses control of the preserve, some of the land would be protected by conservation easements, Harrison said. But much of what is now open space could be developed.
How much of the preserve could be converted into residential and commercial neighborhoods won’t be clear until creditors take possession of the land and begin marketing it.
Open to the public, at least for the time being, the preserve remains one of the least disturbed portions of the 467,000-acre Galisteo Basin, which contains the largest ruins of ancient Pueblo Indian settlements in the United States. Although there are no signs of such settlements within the preserve, archaeologists believe the widely scattered remnants of pre-historic gardens, seasonal dwellings, campsites, stone tools, projectile points, potsherds and petroglyphs indicate that the preserve was one of the most heavily utilized parts of the basin.
“That landscape holds evidence for reconstructing the history of Pueblo people,” said Eric Blinman, director of New Mexico’s Office of Archaeological Studies. “The area is absolutely worth preserving.”
But because only a small portion of the preserve has been surveyed, archaeologists fear that suburban-style development, similar to nearby Eldorado, would erase a fragile human footprint that dates back at least 7,000 years.
“We don’t know what’s out there, and we may never find out if it (the conservancy) loses control of the property,” said Cherie Scheick, president of Southwest Archaeological Consultants, who has been doing research in the Galisteo Basin for 15 years.
Commonweal Conservancy began acquiring land for the preserve in 2003, envisioning it as a model for limited development and open space preservation throughout the basin. “We were hoping we could be an inspiration to other large landowners in the region,” Harrison said.
The viability of the preserve depended on a nontraditional form of financing open space. It called for the sale of 275 home sites to be carved out of the landscape as inconspicuously as possible. However, the post-recession real estate market did not recover fast enough for the conservancy to meet its mortgage obligations — only 48 home sites have been sold — and it is now searching for ways to repay the bank loans or negotiate a settlement that will satisfy the Los Alamos National Bank.
The bank filed its foreclosure lawsuit early last year and, so far, efforts to reach a mutually acceptable settlement have fallen short, Harrison said.
“We thought we were close to an agreement last fall,” he said. But by the end of the year, the conservancy determined it could not raise enough money quickly enough to meet the terms of the bank’s counteroffer. Last month, the bank filed a motion for summary judgment which could accelerate transfer of the land from Commonweal.
Harrison would not speculate on the current value of the preserve. It consists largely of open land with minimal access and lacks improved roads and infrastructure. The land is subject to zoning restrictions and conservation easements that limit the number of houses that can be built and where they can be located. But the restrictions only overlay parts of the area. Under existing zoning, more than a dozen 160-acre tracts could be developed in the center of the preserve, Harrison added, in addition to the 275 smaller homesites already permitted at the northern end of the property.
The conservancy imposed its own design standards to minimize erosion and impact on artifacts, views and wildlife. However, Harrison said a new owner would not be bound by those guidelines.
Harrison is a former senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based organization specializing in protecting open space and natural areas that are close to cities and suburbs, and thus more accessible than many national parks and wilderness areas. Harrison had a similar goal in mind when he left the Trust for Public Land 15 years ago to found Commonweal Conservancy and begin purchasing land for the preserve.
The land was part of a cattle ranch that dated to the mid-1900s, its windmills, stock tanks, wagon roads and livestock trails about the only signs of modern civilization. That network of primitive roads and livestock trails provided a template for the preserve’s hiking, biking and equestrian trails — a 3,500-acre complex that is slightly larger than either Dale Ball or La Tierra, Santa Fe’s two other major trail systems. The preserve also abuts the 15-mile Santa Fe Rail-Trail that leads into the city with a spur trail to the Santa Fe Community College.
“If the Conservancy lost control of the preserve it would be a pretty significant loss in terms of lowland recreation and open space,” said Tim Rogers, trails program manager for the Santa Fe Conservation Trust. A new owner could close off public access to 40 percent of the trail system, Harrison said. And new homes could be built close to accessible trails. “Instead of being in a natural, wild place, the way it is now, you’d be walking past a neighborhood.”
For archaeologists like Blinman, the preserve is especially relevant to understanding the period from the 12th to the 16th centuries, a dynamic epoch when climate fluctuation, ethnic conflict and European conquest led to dramatic shifts in settlement patterns. Of particular interest are the areas where Puebloan people grew corn. These areas are called grid gardens, so named because because they are outlined by rows of stones that have remained in place where the land has been least disturbed.
Archaeologists believe the late-1100s ushered in a period of heavy monsoon moisture that led to the cultivation of corn in the preserve and helps explain the dramatic increase in population throughout the Galisteo Basin. Conversely, when the rains diminished, corn cultivation appears to have declined. But how much a changing climate contributed to the eventual abandonment of the area by Native Americans remains a question that more research in the preserve could answer.
The preserve, said Blinman, is “a poster child for climate change.”
Even if large parts of the preserve are left intact, some degree of degradation would be unavoidable, experts say, if there were more intensive development than the conservancy intended.
“The preserve provides an important connective corridor for wildlife, especially large mammals, from the Sangre de Cristos to the Ortiz,” said Jan-Willem Jansens, a landscape planner and co-author of an ecological appraisal of the Galisteo Basin funded by the State Engineer’s Office. Jansens described the preserve as a sanctuary for animals fleeing drought and fire. But he warned increased development — with its noise, night lighting, roads and traffic — would dry up water sources, deplete plant life and generally make the place much less hospitable to wildlife.
“When wild land is developed, people generally don’t take good care of it,” Jansens said. “The preserve is a fragile landscape.”