by Michael Farrell Smith
The Sandia Mountains are, of course, important to the people who live on them—on the mountains’ wooded eastern slopes, in communities from Placitas to Carnuel, and from Sandia Park to Tijeras—but they’re important as well to the people of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, the valley-filling mid-sized metropolis whose eastern perimeter, or much of it, is this striking 17-mile-long range.
These mountains also matter in ways not so easily quantifiable. Many residents hike or bike or rock-climb or ski or sled or pursue other outdoor recreations in the Sandias; many ride the aerial tram, or drive the scenic, winding road through the Cibola National Forest up to Sandia Peak, the range’s highest point, 10,678 gray-granite feet above sea level. Most probably listen to or watch or talk on something that receives signals from the Antenna Farm—the fence-encircled cluster of broadcast and cell phone towers on Sandia Peak—and every Albuquerque resident benefits from the weather the mountains help shape, and from the mountains simply being.
Every sighted Albuquerque resident benefits from being able to look up and see these beautiful mountains and the clouds that move around them, and any Middle Rio Grande Valley resident might experience the Sandia Mountains’ presence as a daily reminder of the natural world, and of the ancientness of this land. I live in Albuquerque these days, and have, many times, been silenced into reverence and awe by light on these shining high-desert mountains, by a profound experience of real nature, even though I may have been, at the time, standing in some trash-strewn gas station or grocery store parking lot, encircled by plastic signs and traffic.
These mountains are not a perfect wilderness, although they do have wilderness areas. The Sandias have roads and communities and trails and the tram and a ski resort and those antennae—but even so, I’m grateful they’re not more developed than they already are. I’m grateful there’s not a road cutting from Sandia Peak, across the top of the northeastern portion of the range, north and down toward Placitas. I, for one, am grateful Skyline Drive does not exist.
An article in the November 25, 1962 Albuquerque Journal describes how Skyline Drive was first envisioned, along with a number of other would-be developments proposed by a development-obsessed “regional forester” named Fred H. Kennedy.
Kennedy, in charge of national forests in New Mexico and Arizona, also revealed . . . a recreation use plan for [the] Sandia Mountains, an area used more than any other because of its proximity to Albuquerque. Highlight of the Sandia plan is a proposed “Skyline Drive” to run about two miles south of the Sandia [C]rest to connect with La Madera Ski [A]rea and north from the Crest for about eight miles to hook up with [the highway] west of Placitas. This, Kennedy pointed out, fits hand-in-glove with the public desire for sightseeing in national forests.
A number of recreation areas along the new road, along with two additional trams, were also included in Kennedy’s plan. A dotted line on a visual accompanying the article shows where the road would have gone: seemingly right along the edge of Sandia Crest, all the way down.
Opposition to the plan sprung up almost immediately. In a brief-but-detailed history section, Cibola National Forest’s 1975 Sandia Mountains Land Use Plan, available online, recounts that in 1965 the Albuquerque Wildlife and Conservation Association, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and the New Mexico Mountain Club all registered their opposition. As the history recounts, “These organizations felt that the road might have a detrimental effect on the habitat of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. As a result, the project was postponed.”
But not stopped. After an August 8, 1966 public meeting, the route was adjusted, twice, and five miles of the road were cleared by sometime in the fall of 1969, after which an inspiring—and effective—local campaign of petitions and postcards and letters managed to get construction halted. James A. Morris, in the invaluable 1980 book Oku Pin: The Sandia Mountains of New Mexico, writes:
The road clearing, though scarring the mountainside, had its greatest impact upon the minds and sensibilities of many people . . . the ragged swath, nearly two hundred feet wide, zigzagged among the trees down the eastern slope. The soil was exposed, rocks were tumbled about, and stumps with their roots upturned appeared to beseech the Sandia deities for mercy. The mountains themselves would eventually reclaim the land and mend the wound in their flank, but the road would not survive the aroused reaction that opposed the construction of any skyline drive.
Financial considerations and political obstacles also played a part in killing the project, Morris writes, as did the bursting of the decade’s-long gasoline bubble. “Ironically, the road issue was put to rest with the dramatic events precipitated by oil-producing nations and the subsequent energy crisis that temporarily ensued. The original plan had been . . . a product of times when Sunday drivers cruised with little thought given . . . to the availability or cost of fuel.”
Change is, perhaps, inevitable. But isn’t it wonderful, sometimes, when it’s not? When a beautiful place stays beautiful? When something in need of protection actually gets it? In Skyline Drive’s case, that change came too late for five miles of trees and their animal inhabitants—one can still see evidence of the damage from a number of trails, including South Crest and Ellis—but it didn’t come too late for the people living below it and turning their faces upward. The mountains had given the people of the valley so much, as they had for so long, and some of those people gave something back—their time, their voices—and then the mountains had kept giving and kept giving, and they keep giving and keep giving and keep giving still.
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