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Love of history, nature drive parks director

Christy Tafoya, director of the State Parks, speaks to a group of Girl Scouts at Hyde Memorial State Park. (Courtesy of Christy Tafoya) 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — State Parks director Christy Tafoya moved here nearly three decades ago even though she had never set foot on New Mexican soil.

She had just graduated from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., earning bachelor’s degrees in history and historic preservation. It was 1991 and she accepted a job with Lincoln National Forest, inspired by New Mexican culture, history and architecture.

“I came out here sight unseen,” she said. “My mom was thrilled.”

Former Gov. Susana Martinez made history in 2015 when she named Tafoya to lead New Mexico’s State Parks Division, making Tafoya the first woman to hold the post. New Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently reappointed Tafoya to the position.

It’s a common practice for incoming governors to let go of top government officials appointed by the previous administration and replace them with a candidate of their choice.

“I did not know what was going to happen,” Tafoya said. “I had to reapply for my job. I’m very grateful our governor is giving me an opportunity to continue my work.”

After 10 years of planning and work, the department is steps away from establishing Pecos Canyon State Park with Tafoya continuing at the helm.

Tafoya decided to attend New Mexico State University to earn a master’s in anthropology where she did a project at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park.

“That’s how I came to know the state park system here,” she said. “I thought ‘This would be a good agency to work for.’ I applied and was hired as the first archaeologist for the parks.”

Tafoya spent her childhood in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C., where she had access to not only the outdoors but a front-row seat to history.

Director of the New Mexico State Parks Division, Christy Tafoya, poses in front of the Columbia River in Oregon during a hiking trip earlier this year. (Courtesy of Christy Tafoya)

“I love history,” she said. “I have a historic preservation background. Those experiences led me to come to New Mexico to see the architecture.”

But it was the Girl Scouts when she was a child that ignited her passion for the natural world. She’s currently on the board of directors for Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails and said she works with the organization to connect girls to the outdoors.

Peggy Sanchez Mills, CEO of the state’s Girl Scout organization, said she reached out to Tafoya knowing she would be a good role model for the girls.

“She is such a great role model for our girls, shares our passion for girl leadership and the outdoors,” she said. “… Her ethics and integrity impress me tremendously and her strong sense of responsibility.”

Lewis Ledford is the executive of America’s State Parks, a national organization with the goal of promoting state park systems across the country. He met Tafoya at a convention in 2010. He said her background as an anthropologist and history are two important tools she offers.

“I would describe her as passionate and competent,” he said. “… In addition to providing safe and quality outdoor recreation opportunities, Christy has a strong desire to convey an understanding of the importance of parks now and for future generations, and their economic value.”

New Mexico has 34 state parks that offer a wide range of activities for visitors, including hiking, boating, camping, fishing, bird watching and star gazing, with some parks containing observatories.

Tafoya said the Legislature provides 25 percent of the New Mexico State Parks budget and the remaining funding comes from fees, grants and federal funds. According to state figures, 5 million people visit the state’s parks annually. The state is responsible for maintenance and ensuring the parks are clean. They also put in place things like picnic tables, trash cans, electricity, dump stations for RV waste, and buildings that become the point of contact for the public.

The state park system is nestled under the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. Sarah Cottrell Propst, department director, called Tafoya an inspiring example.

“With Director Tafoya’s 20 years in the State Parks Division, we are thrilled to have her at the helm,” Cottrell Propst said. “Her resource and education background, as well as her invaluable institutional knowledge, make her the perfect fit to lead the continued growth of the State Parks Division.”

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