Preserving Open and Productive Lands in Northern New Mexico
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Taos Land Trust Makes Historic Transfer of Sacred Site to Taos Pueblo
TAOS, NM -- The Ponce de León Hot Springs just south of Taos is a sacred site to Taos Pueblo and has been used by members of the tribe for ceremonial activities since time immemorial. In recent years, however, Taos Land Trust – a local land conservation organization – acquired the 44-acre property from private landowners to protect it from development. In an historic move, the land trust has now transferred legal ownership of the property to the Taos Pueblo Tribe, returning the site to its original indigenous owners.
“This kind of partnership is very rare in the conservation community,” said former Taos Land Trust executive director Ernie Atencio. “But we are very proud to be setting this precedent, recognizing the deep historical relationship the Pueblo has with this place, and helping build a stronger sense of harmony and goodwill in our multicultural community.”
Taos Pueblo Governor Laureano Romero, Warchief Benito Sandoval and Taos Land Trust President Christopher Smith signed documents transferring the land during an emotional ceremony that took place Saturday evening, July 14, amid the color and pageantry of the annual Taos Pueblo Powwow.
Warchief Sandoval, whose leadership and determination were instrumental in forging the transfer agreement, expressed gratitude for the return of the sacred site. “Blue Lake, the Rio Grande, Red Clay, the Hot Springs … these areas are critical to our well being, without them we would not exist,” he said. “It is important to preserve these areas for the future of our children and all who live here. We are very grateful!”
The transfer of ownership to the Pueblo brings to a close a 15-year search by Taos Land Trust to find a fitting steward for this unique and special place. In 1997, the land trust purchased the land to save the hot springs from commercial development and create a park for the people of Taos. The anonymous donor who gave the money for the purchase remembered the place from the 1940s and 50s as a friendly community gathering place for all the cultures of Taos and hoped to recreate that atmosphere.
Generations of Taoseños have enjoyed the sparkling spring water, which bubbles up from deep underground sources. Though privately owned since patented by the U.S. government in 1909, and part of two overlapping land grants before that, the property has long been considered a public resource by all members of the community.
Over the years, the land trust has considered transferring to or held discussions with a number of entities, including Carson National Forest, New Mexico State Parks, the Town of Taos, Taos County, the Cristobal de la Serna Land Grant and Picuris Pueblo, as well as entertaining an incredible variety of proposals from countless other groups throughout the region, according to Atencio. In October 2009,
Taos Land Trust signed a deed of conservation easement with the Santa Fe Conservation Trust to permanently protect the property, limiting any future development potential no matter who owns it.
Eventually, after seven years of intermittent negotiations, Taos Pueblo emerged as the entity most capable of preserving the land and its unique natural and cultural resources. Moreover, the Pueblo is committed to honoring the terms and conditions of the conservation easement, which run with the land, including the provision that the property remain accessible to all the people of the Taos community.
“It has been challenging, to say the least, to balance protection and stewardship of the land with allowing public access,” said Atencio, “but we were committed to it, and have been allowing people onto the property by way of a free permit.” The Pueblo will continue to provide public access under a similar permit system.
Crestina Armstrong Trujillo, long-time Taos Land Trust board member, was particularly moved by the signing. “I’ve devoted nine years of my life to this project,” remarked Crestina, “to see it finally completed is monumental. This is the right thing to do. I believe that in the long run, the transfer of the hot springs to the Pueblo will strengthen relations in our community.