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.
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.
ENVISIONED NEW RECREATIONAL AMENITIES
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
• 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.
PROJECT’S SIGNIFICANT BENEFITS AND CONSIDERABLE CHALLENGES
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.
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.
RIVERWALK: CAN AN EXPENSIVE SIDETRACK BE REDIRECTED?
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.
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.
FUNDING THE VISION
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.