The mine, which had been the economic driver in the area for the better half of a century, shut down operations in the summer of 2014 and with it went about 265 jobs, a devastating blow for a community of about 1,700 people.
“We didn’t have another industry to fall back on,” said the village’s mayor, Mark Gallegos. “But knowing that Rio Grande Del Norte had just come into effect, we decided that probably needed to be our focus – to try to diversify ourselves to the outdoor recreational community.”
The mine closed just months after then-President Obama designated 242,555 acres of federal land in Taos County a national monument. While President Trump has called for a review of 27 national monuments – including Rio Grande Del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in the southern part of the state – with an eye toward reducing some in size, there has been prevailing support by local governments around the Enchanted Circle, environmental groups and sportsmen’s organizations for maintaining the northern New Mexico monument’s boundaries.
A study released about a year after the mine closed recommended the village take advantage of the economic possibilities that could come with the monument designation.
“Action: Make Questa the ‘Official Home of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument,'” reads one recommendation from a strategic planning document commissioned by the village.
The study – which took input from community members, data analysis and national research on post-mining economies in rural areas into consideration – identified five areas where economic development strategies could be employed for the benefit of the village. The others were small businesses and enterprises, agriculture and food production, arts and culture, and housing and construction. And while the village is investing in economic development efforts in those areas, as well, outdoor recreation and tourism appealed to village leaders as a breaking economic opportunity.
“Not so much tourism, where you’d have gift shops and stores, and stuff like that,” Gallegos said. “We’re looking at more of an outdoor adventurer clientele – people who are looking to be outside in untouched nature. We felt we could develop a niche for that group of people interested in outdoor recreation.”
Gallegos says Questa already has a great reputation among people who love the outdoors. Options include hunting, hiking, camping, mountain biking and horseback riding in the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and fishing, canoeing and kayaking along the Red River. Eagle Rock Lake, a so-called “fishing park,” is just outside of town and not far away are opportunities for winter sports at nearby Red River and Taos Ski Valley.
Gallegos says Questa has been a well-kept secret among outdoor enthusiasts, but now the time has come to market the village to a wider audience, “so that people can see that we’re not just a passerby community on the Enchanted Circle.”
The Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway – a ribbon of roads tying together Questa, Red River, Eagle Nest, Angel Fire and Taos – is perhaps the most picturesque 84 miles of highway in New Mexico. About a half million cars pass through Questa along the loop each year.
“If we can get them to get out of their vehicle, we’ve got them where we want them to spend money in our community,” the mayor said.
And if they can get them to stay a few days as some sort of outdoor adventure, all the better.
But it takes money to make money, and Questa is trying to tap what federal, state and local economic development funding is available.
Just last month, the village was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to develop a business park.
“That’ll get us about halfway there,” Gallegos said, noting that the village still needs to come up with matching funds, and that it’ll take about $4.2 million to build a business park with water, sewer, electricity hookups, and “all the bells and whistles.”
The business park development is already underway and has one tenant. Taos Mountain Energy Bars – a good fit for a town promoting outdoor recreation options – moved operations and approximately 15 jobs to Questa in 2015.
Though it is closing the last of its mining operations at Questa, Chevron Mining, Inc. isn’t entirely abandoning the village. The company, which donated 30 acres of land to build the business park, is providing $500,000 to match the federal grant and, since 2014 and through 2023, is contributing $320,000 annually to the village’s economic recovery efforts. Of that amount, $200,000 goes to the village to spend on economic development projects and operations, and the remaining $120,000 goes into an endowment, the funds to be released when remediation efforts are complete.
“But we’re looking at other possibilities to make the money available before then,” said Tommy Lyles, public affairs manager for Chevron, who acknowledged it will probably be decades before remediation is complete.
Lyles said even if funds were released sooner, Chevron will continue to work with the village. “We know we’re going to be a community partner with the village of Questa for a long time,” he said.
Christain Isely, economic development adviser for Chevron, said the company is under no obligation to help in this way.
“It’s not a part of any commitment,” he said. “It’s something we decided to do to help the community transition to a post-mine economy.”
In all, the company has voluntarily contributed $4.7 million to the Questa Economic Development Fund, he says.
The company is obligated to pay for the cleanup that has left hillsides stripped of vegetation. Last year, Chevron Mining Inc. agreed to a $143 million settlement with the state and federal government.
Isley says Chevron is on board with the village’s efforts to be the gateway to the monument.
“Right now, the monument has two visitor centers: one in Pilar and the other at the Wild River Center, about a 25-minute drive from Questa,” he points out. “The desire is to get that one moved to Questa and give people another reason to stop.”
Chevron also owns 4,400 acres of land in the area and 1,400 acre-feet of annual water rights that may eventually end up with the village. “Those are surplus assets that we want to make sure are made available for community use,” Lyles said.
Both the land and the water would benefit the village’s efforts to promote farming and ranching as other ways to diversify the economy. The economic strategic planning study identified barley and malting as potential operations that could supply New Mexico’s growing beer industry.
Malaquias Rael preceded Gallegos as mayor and now serves as chairman of the Questa Economic Development Fund board. He’s lucky. His family owns several businesses in Questa, including Questa Lumber, a hardware store and a tire shop, and wasn’t as affected by the mine closing as many area residents. But he believes the community is capable of recovery.
“I’m optimistic about the things we’re doing,” he said. “I believe we have great potential to be a destination (for outdoor recreation). There’s no way we can be like Red River or Taos, but we can still be a part of the Enchanted Circle.”
Questa’s not like Red River, a ski and resort town, or Taos, known for skiing, but also its arts and culture. But Questa can boast its proximity to nature and the great outdoors. Rael points out the village is bordered by the Carson National Forest, with the Columbine Hondo and Latir Peak wilderness areas not far away. A sign on the way out of town on N.M. 378 says the monument is just 3.4 miles ahead.
“We’re in such a great position,” he said. “We’re right in the middle of everything.”
Near the middle of town is another relic the town takes pride in. It’s the newly restored San Antonio de Padua Catholic Church, a 150-year-old structure that was condemned by the archdiocese, but restored by townspeople in what some say is an unabashed “miracle.”
Mayor Gallegos says if the town can revive the church, it can survive a future without the mine.
“That’s the single best example of the village’s resiliency,” Gallegos said of the church. “We are not going to give up.”