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Sandia coaster getting bumpy reception

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Just the thought of a mountain coaster in the Sandias is making some people scream.

The Wiegand Alpine Coaster. (Courtesy Wiegand Sports)

Hundreds of New Mexicans have chimed in during a public comment period the Cibola National Forest held as part of the approval process for a mountain coaster at the Sandia Peak Ski Area. More than 1,700 people and counting have written comments about the proposal, and the vast majority of them are critical of the coaster, according to a Journal review.

“If we built a mechanical bull ride at the top of the Sandias, yes, more people may go up there, but at what cost to the land/view?” Jonathan Yales asked.

“I oppose building a roller coaster on sacred lands, you wouldn’t think to stick a roller coaster in Vatican city, it would be abhorrent,” Colette Scaff wrote. “This is equally so.”

“This is a terrible idea and a waste of money,” Jared McGaughey said. “There are better ways to attract additional summer tourism. … A real bike park is the obvious best option.”

Benny Abruzzo, the president of Sandia Peak Ski Co., has read through many of the letters. He said he wasn’t surprised by the tone.

His family and other shareholders in a closely held private company that manages the businesses draping the top of the Sandia Mountains have been hearing similar remarks for nearly 60 years. They also manage Ski Santa Fe.

“Overall, when I read through the comments … they are very similar to the comments we’ve seen when we do any kind of project. And we’ve done lots of these,” Abruzzo said. “You often see the same type of comment, which is, ‘We don’t know if we need more (development); ‘We’re worried about traffic;’ ‘We’re worried about noise’; ‘We’re worried about crowds.’ ”

The proposal

The U.S. Forest Service’s scoping letter describes the coaster as “similar to a bobsled attached to tracks on a hill.” It says the attraction would increase multi-season opportunities on the land. The letter notes that not everyone has the physical fitness or skills needed to mountain bike or ski.

Source: Sandia Park Ski Co.

Paying guests would get into the ride near the apex of the Sandias, where the tram, restaurant and main ski lift all meet.

Then they would drop 400 feet in elevation across 3,000 feet of S-shaped track, relying on gravity to pick up speed. After the descent, the car would link up with a cable for a 1,400-foot ride back to the top.

The ski area would have to close Rob’s Run, and parts of Fred’s Run and Inhibition. Switchbacks on the Golden Eagle hiking and mountain bike trail, which is maintained by the ski area, would have to be rerouted. No trails maintained by the Forest Service would be affected.

Source: Sandia Park Ski, Co.

It’s part of a master plan that Abruzzo said the ski area hopes will improve the long-term viability of the operation.

“It’s fairly simple, and it’s quite obvious,” Abruzzo said. “Ski areas have found it very challenging to be dependent on winter alone.”

Like many other ski areas, Sandia is within a national forest, and the Forest Service must follow an approval process outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act before signing off on a coaster or any other development. That process often includes a public comment period.

Patricia Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Cibola National Forest, said in an email that no final decision about the coaster has been made. Since September, the agency has been accepting comments regarding its preliminary decision to “categorically exclude” the coaster project from requiring a formal environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement.

Johnson said that the assessment could take a year and that the impact statement would take two years.

Johnson said Friday that “based on preliminary views of the comments received from scoping,” the Forest Service was considering using an environmental assessment to review the project.

Abruzzo said the project should get the green light.

“There is so little that is going to be changed by putting in the mountain coaster,” he said.

Public comment

The responses that the Forest Service received have run the gamut. Some people were frustrated with losing their favorite hiking or mountain biking trails. Others worried about impacts on local wildlife. There are also those who see the project as more desecration of sacred land.

But there were others who said the project sounded like a fun attraction that would pump more money into the local economy. They said it would add to the charm of taking out-of-town visitors up the peak.

Tyler Wade, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, wrote that his family passed down stories of being manipulated out of land rights to the Sandias, which the tribe considers sacred. For that reason alone, he suggested at least slowing down the project and getting more input from nearby pueblos.

“On behalf of our ancestors and ones who are no longer here, we ask there be no more decisions that do not take into consideration the sovereignty of the many Indigenous Nations that hold Sandia Peak sacred,” he wrote.

Julia Bernal, a member of Sandia Pueblo, writing on behalf of the Pueblo Action Alliance, said her pueblo has experienced a spiritual loss as a result of increased recreation in the Sandia mountains. She, too, opposed the project without more consultation with surrounding tribes.

Others wondered if a paintball course or water park would be next.

“The Sandia Mountains are a Wilderness area,” Raymond Fletcher wrote. “A place for many forms of recreation, including hiking, climbing, skiing and in restricted areas, mountain biking. It is not an amusement park.”

James Marc Beverly, the owner of Beverly Mountain Guides, supports the coaster effort. Beverly’s rock climbing and backcountry skiing outfit operates in national forests, including the Cibola, under special permits.

“A positive exposure for many, who will not otherwise have the opportunity, will … likely foster a respect and appreciation for natural resources from (coaster riders) by having a bridge introduction,” he wrote.

‘Mountain enthusiasts’

Abruzzo said his father purchased the ski area 30 miles from Downtown on the east side of the Sandia mountains in 1963, and the family has tried to improve access to the range flanking the city since that time.

The family’s first development project was to build a ski lift to the top of the crest, which was the first time people could be ferried to the path that runs along the spine of the Sandias and connects the eastern and western sides of the range.

From 1964 to 1966, the tram was built. Abruzzo said a small lodge called the Summit House was opened as a place for skiers, and that eventually became High Finance restaurant. The restaurant was recently rebuilt into Ten 3, where on the menu is a $51 filet mignon, a $15 martini and foie gras.

Abruzzo said he understands the concerns raised in many of the objections to the project and thinks the concerns can be addressed.

He said the coaster would allow the company to keep its staff employed the whole year, which would naturally improve operations. It would also provide another revenue stream so more money could be pumped into the Sandia Peak Ski Co.’s ventures, possibly making improvements to ski lifts or trails.

And he pointed out that the only trails that would be affected by the proposal, which was a common complaint, are ones that the ski area built and maintains and allow people to hike and bike on without cost. Abruzzo said he helped build the trails in the 1980s, and the ski area plans to keep them open to hiking and biking in the summer, and skinning, a technique for skiing uphill, during the winter.

“Our whole family has always been huge mountain enthusiasts. We don’t do just the stuff that costs money. We’re all mountain climbers, we’re all trail hikers, we’re all mountain bikers, we all skin,” Abruzzo said. “We’re the enthusiasts. We want people to ride our mountain biking trails for free, and we go and we clear the trees off of them every spring.”


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