Healthier and Wealthier: The “Turtleback Trails” Vision of Green Riverfront Development

by Diana Tittle | May 15, 2021
12 min read
The citizen-led planning project is the first serious attempt to spur green redevelopment of the riverfront since the creation of T or C’s Healing Waters Trail a decade ago. Source: Sierra County NM Trails

A local runner’s desire for a shortcut to reach the web of dirt tracks and trails across the river from Truth or Consequences has evolved into a community-wide planning effort to improve recreational access to most of Sierra County’s Rio Grande corridor for everyone.

The so-called “Turtleback Trails” project is the first serious attempt to spur green redevelopment of the riverfront since the creation of T or C’s Healing Waters Trail, a three-mile desert-town walking loop, a decade ago.

In the works for two years, the project has been led by citizen volunteers with the technical assistance of the National Park Service and the support of the Truth or Consequences City Commission and the Village of Williamsburg Trustees. Its aim is to produce a conceptual plan for an array of recreational enhancements to the stretch of riverfront from the Elephant Butte Fish Hatchery to Seco Creek, at the mouth of Caballo Lake.

John Masterson at project chalk board in Rotary Park
Project catalyst John Masterson posts a question soliciting public input for the Turtleback Trails conceptual plan on the project’s blackboard at Rotary Park. Photograph by Diana Tittle

A swath of the community has been engaged in the planning effort via virtual participation in three working groups: trails, river access and conservation/education. But the project’s Steering Committee, led by Merry Jo Fahl of the Jornada Resource Conservation & Development Council, has been somewhat stymied in its desire to solicit ideas from the public by COVID-19 restrictions on attendance at meetings and gatherings.

With the financial support of NPS’s Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program, the committee has installed and maintained a black board at T or C’s Rotary Park on which passersby can chalk answers to such questions as “How can we make sure this project is great for kids?” and “What improvements would help people with tubes and kayaks.” This summer the Steering Committee will redouble its efforts to gather input from Sierra County residents on the draft conceptual plan. A community survey will be circulated, and in-person and outdoor presentations and displays are also planned, according to Steering Committee member John Masterson, the co-owner of the Truth or Consequences Brewing Company and an avid runner.

Masterson’s desire to avoid having to ford the river when he wanted to run on the east bank prompted him to approach Merry Jo Fahl with the idea for a pedestrian bridge. Fahl had spearheaded the planning effort that created the Healing Waters Trail with NPS’s technical assistance. She suggested to Masterson that they again enlist the help of the Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program, and the Turtleback Trails project was born.


If all goes well, the Turtleback Trails Steering Committee expects to unveil the final conceptual plan this fall. Its proposed amenities will likely include:

• A designated trail network for use by local and visiting hikers, mountain bikers, runners, horseback riders, kids and youth groups. The network will ideally link to the envisioned 500-mile-long, cross-state Rio Grande Trail, increasing the usage of both pathways.

• New or improved put-in and take-out ramps for tubers, canoers and kayakers at as many as six locations. Multiple easy-access points would enable two-hour to day-long excursions on Sierra County’s stretch of the river corridor. Official designation of the Paddle Trail as a National Water Trail may be sought.

(Left) Multi-use bridges spanning the river in Truth or Consequences and the Village of Williamsburg will provide convenient access to a designated network of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. (Right) New or improved launch ramps for tubers and paddlers are envisioned for as many as six locations along the riverfront. Photographs courtesy of Sierra County NM Trails and Whitewater Weekends

View of the Rio Grande from the site of the BOR's temporary dam at Rotary Park
Rotary Park, presently host to the BOR’s temporary dam (dismantled for the summer in this photograph), will serve as a prominent “gateway” to enhanced outdoor recreational opportunities. Source: Sierra County NM Trails

• Wetland restoration to create new habitats for birdwatching and fishing, most likely at T or C’s Rotary Park. This park will also serve as the most prominent Turtleback Trails “gateway” to outdoor recreational activities on or along the river corridor.

• At minimum, two multi-use bridges—one spanning the river in T or C and one spanning the river in Williamsburg—with an east-riverbank trail connecting them. The bridges would accommodate non-motorized traffic, but be closed to off-road vehicles except for UTVs (utility terrain vehicles) responding to emergencies.

Four possible locations for the two bridges have been identified, and the Steering Committee is attempting to secure in-kind engineering analyses of soil samples at those locations to inform the conceptual plan’s proposed siting of the bridges.


Graphic of Paddle Trail access points
The Paddle Trail’s proposed access points Source: Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program

Better access to outdoor recreation, the Turtleback Trail planners believe, will enable Sierra Countians to embrace more active lifestyles. It should have economic benefits, too, increasing tourism and encouraging longer visits in Sierra County, which will spur business growth and government revenues. “In short, we envision a community that is healthier and wealthier,” the project’s Facebook page states.

Implementation of the conceptual plan will take several years. According to Attila Bality, who has helped to facilitate the Turtleback Trails project in his capacity as outdoor recreational planner for the New Mexico field office of NPS’s Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program, the citizen planners realize that their concept is only a starting point for a larger discussion with major stakeholders whose assistance will be needed if the plan is to be realized.

These stakeholders include:

• The Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management have key land holdings along the river corridor under study. Their approval of proposed new uses of these public lands must be obtained, and the Turtleback Trail planners have prudently begun conversations with regional representatives of those federal agencies.

• The agreement of private landowners to sell riverfront parcels or grant easements may be required.

• Environmentalists’ concerns have been represented by Isaac Eastvold, an outspoken member of the Turtleback Trails conservation/education working group. The president of the Chihuahuan Desert Conservancy, which has purchased 200 acres in T or C for conservation and educational purposes, Eastvold has raised the issue (in his working group and publicly) about how the proposed bridges will affect low-flying bird species such as swallows that use the river as migration routes. He labels the bridges component a “wet bar of soap” for other reasons, fearing that the citizen planners will be pressured into enlarging them for use by off-road vehicles that will run roughshod over fragile desertlands and by the city administration as conduits for infrastructure needed to enable commercial development on the east bank.

Eastvold is also a strong proponent of wetlands restoration at Rotary Park—a component of the Healing Waters Trail project that has yet to be realized—and has raised questions about whether restoration of the riverine habitat can be accomplished there alongside other planned recreational improvements. The Turtleback Trails Steering Committee agrees that the layout of this multi-use “gateway” park needs careful thought, according to Bality, who has offered to make NPS resources available to hire a landscape planner to conduct a conceptual design workshop if the City of Truth or Consequences will share in the cost.

Conceptual plan for wetlands restoration at Rotary Park
Can wetlands restoration at Rotary Park to enhance opportunities for birdwatching and fishing—an unrealized component of the Healing Waters Trail project—be accomplished alongside other recreational enhancements envisioned for Sierra County’s pre-eminent “gateway” to the Rio Grande? Source: Isaac Eastvold

The Steering Committee also understands that the overall conceptual plan will have to be evaluated to ensure that its implementation does no harm to natural habitats, flora or fauna, biodiversity and cultural and economic resources. The BOR and BLM are the proper authorities, Bality has advised the citizen planners, to conduct the required NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) impact studies after the conceptual plan is finalized.

• Because the proposed network of trails could abut or criss-cross known archeological sites, Native American tribal leaders whose ancestors lived at those sites will have to approve the location of new trails or the designated use of existing tracks. The citizen planners are conferring with the archeological staff at the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division about how best to conduct these sensitive conversations.


T or C’s new city manager Bruce Swingle may play a decisive role in determining whether the Turtleback Trail vision is realized. Representatives of the Steering Committee plan to meet soon with Swingle to request his assistance in coordinating their planning effort with a city-initiated economic feasibility study of riverfront development that is proceeding simultaneously.

This study has been underwritten with a $50,000 grant from New Mexico Finance Authority on which the city’s Grants/Project Coordinator Traci Alvarez began working in spring 2019. It is being conducted by Wilson & Company, a national civil engineering firm with branches throughout New Mexico. Swingle’s predecessor, then City Manager Morris Madrid, engaged the firm’s services in July 2019, a month after the T or C city commission passed a resolution to apply for NPS’s technical assistance on behalf of the Turtleback Trails project.

Instead of complementing or supplementing the citizen-initiated planning effort, Wilson & Company’s scope of work duplicated its objectives. As outlined in a contract signed on July 21, 2019, by Madrid, the civil engineers were to be paid a total of $60,000 (T or C made a “skin-in-the-game” contribution of $10,000) to “develop . . .  a vision to capture the growing outdoor recreation market” and “assist the City of T or C to properly plan for future infrastructure investments and also tie into regional economic development and recreational opportunities.”

Nearly two years later, with Traci Alvarez acting as point person, the project dubbed “Riverwalk” has created a county-wide Steering Committee that has met twice, the first time in October 2019 and the second last month. The purpose of the April 2021 meeting was to solicit the Steering Committee’s feedback on a draft “concept map” prepared by Wilson & Company, which the Sun has obtained via an Inspection of Public Records request. The map’s publication below will be its first public unveiling. A planned workshop to obtain community input was cancelled because of the pandemic, Alvarez told the Sun. An alternative plan to conduct a community survey is in the works.

Wilson & Company's concept map for Riverwalk
Wilson & Company’s draft concept for a T or C “Riverwalk” envisions the transformation of land flanking and across the river from Rotary Park into a commercial entertainment and shopping district and the construction of a “recreation hub” at the existing Highway 51 tube and paddle launch. The three proposed locations for intensive riverfront development are marked with the purple broken-line circles.

Atilla Bality, one of several Turtleback Trails principals who also serve on the Riverwalk Steering Committee and attended the April meeting, described Wilson & Company’s vision for the T or C riverfront as “traditional real estate development.” Among other things, it re-envisions Rotary Park as the Sierra County equivalent of San Antonio’s Riverwalk: a outdoor pedestrian mall lined with shops, restaurants, bars and even hotels. Turtleback Trails leaders who saw the concept map raised concerns at the April meeting ranging from the feasibility of the locating the envisioned commercial development in a flood plain to the detrimental effect on downtown T or C businesses of creating an alternative shopping and entertainment district.

“It is in the best interests of the T or C community that these two complementary projects with slightly different spins be better aligned,” Bality said, articulating the Turtleback Trails leaders’ position on Riverwalk.

Because the City of Truth or Consequences is Wilson & Company’s client, the Turtleback Trail planners will need Swingle’s help in sending the civil engineers back to the drawing board to factor their concepts into the economic feasibility study. Swingle can also ask Wilson & Company to provide as much technical assistance as possible to the Turtleback Trails project.

There are two immediate areas where Wilson & Company could be helpful. Instead of producing a separate community survey, the Turtleback Trails Steering Committee has suggested a collaboration on distributing a single community survey that would pose questions about desirable riverfront enhancements devised by both planning efforts. Wilson & Company also has the engineering expertise the citizen planners need, but will need the city’s blessing to provide it. At a recent T or C city commission meeting at which an update on the Turtleback Trails project was presented, Merry Jo Fahl requested Wilson & Company’s help with soil sample testing and analyses. A company representative who was present said that he would need to check with the city because the requested assistance wasn’t in the Riverwalk study’s scope of work.


As part of its no-cost technical assistance to the Turtleback Trails project, the Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program will help to identify funding sources and to ensure that the conceptual plan aligns with the objectives of potential funders. The two bridges alone are expected to run as much as several hundred thousands of dollars each. Attila Bality points to the availability of “significant infrastructure money from the state.” With the enactment of the Great American Outdoors Act last August, the federal goverment allocated nearly $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program established in 1965 whose mission includes improving outdoor recreational opportunities throughout the nation. LWCF’s state and local assistance grants are administered by the National Park Service.

How will Sierra County be able to compete for funding?

“Money follows a good plan,” Bality advises.


Diana Tittle is editor of the Sun.

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

2 thoughts on “Healthier and Wealthier: The “Turtleback Trails” Vision of Green Riverfront Development”

  1. I would love a pedestrian bridge crossing the river and the ideas of the Turtleback Trails of wet land restoration and a trail along the east side is also wonderful. I hope this vision can be accomplished without any commercial real estate development. The Wilson plan will not work in our lifetime. We need to support the stores, restaurants and hotels that we already have. The Wilson plan is just more of Morris Madrid recklessly spending our money. Time to let go of his bad ideas. Already too many people have moved because of the “smart” electric meters on our houses. Let’s start doing what people that live here want to do. We know our community needs. The city commissioners need to listen to the ideas of the community, not expensive “experts.”

  2. Patricia S Woodson

    We already have a business district in T or C that needs revitalizing. Keep the wetlands river area as natural and wild for all.

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