Who could guess keeping open Capulin Snow Play Area, designed in the 1970s for kids and adults to tube and sled in winter, would be so tricky?
In the past few years, the outdoor space lush with evergreens stayed closed for a blizzard of reasons: There’s the lack of snow for one thing, but there’s so much more.
Like the fact the staff at Sandia Ranger District is too small to oversee it and can’t raise money for more staffing – $3 a car is all they can charge.
Plus, the district doesn’t have much of a budget to plow the parking area or groom the three sledding and tubing trails.
Requests for proposals went out in 2012 and 2013, seeking private companies who could install their own facilities and run the play area themselves. The company would share a percentage of the profits with the ranger district, as has been done at the nearby Sandia Peak Ski Area.
But not a single bid came in.
Add that all together and you get three awfully lush, but awfully lonely, tubing trails eight miles up Sandia Crest National Scenic Byway.
“Welcome to our world!’ joked Cid Morgan, District Ranger of the Sandia Ranger District, during a recent visit to the trails.
Undaunted by the challenges, she and her team have come up with an idea that, given the right conditions, will allow the play area’s gates to swing open in January 2015 for two three-day holiday weekends, with volunteers in the place of paid staff.
The plan is to recruit a team of volunteers, 25 the ideal number. Then they’ll train them to run the place, six people at a time, for full-day shifts from 10:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., with breaks.
“The goal is through those weekends, to build volunteer capacity to help operate it … the overall goal is to build an engaged public to come out and help supervise the slopes,” said Bob Heiar, a recreation staff officer temporarily on another assignment.
A two-lane road leads to the play area, which has more than 100 parking spots. From there, a few unpaved walkways lead to three trails. The first is a bunny slope surrounded by fencing and intended only for children. The two others, a little farther up the path, are for older people. They were designed with inclines between 20 and 25 degrees and are about 100 yards long.
The popular recreation area was built in 1978 for $500,000 and first opened in 1979. It was built by the Cibola National Forest Service under contract. The Forest Service then ran it in a kind of hands-off manner, opening it and maintaining it, but allowing visitors to recreate at their own risk. They found that visitors were breaking limbs and bumping into each other a lot, because unlike with other winter sports, there’s no way to stop or steer a sled or tube.
So they began to oversee it more aggressively with staff members on site at all times, and the staff noticed that injuries promptly declined.
Morgan, an outdoorsy looking woman wearing finger-less gloves whose duties as ranger actually keep her inside a lot, knows well the challenges to reopening the play area, which has been closed since the 2011-12 winter season.
The volunteers would have to be trained in all tasks, according to Recreation Staff Officer Kerry Wood. Those include greeting people as they arrive; making sure sledders and tubers don’t collide on the slopes; keeping the slopes groomed; keeping the bathrooms clean; overseeing the parking area; and floating from one task to another to give volunteers a break when they get cold or hungry.
Weather permitting, and pending successful recruitment, the play area will be open for Martin Luther King Day weekend, and again for Presidents Day weekend, he said.
“So far, on the list, I have 19 individual volunteers who are interested,” Antonio Garcia, volunteer coordinator for the Sandia Ranger District, said Thursday.
Additionally, the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps will volunteer over Martin Luther King Day weekend. Volunteers signed up during a November community meeting in a Sandia Park community center held to seek neighbors’ input into reopening Capulin.
Volunteers will get trained later this month in the duty areas, and they will have to sign a written agreement with the ranger district, Garcia said.
One potential volunteer is Susan Moll, who was about to hike a trail in the crest this week when she saw a staffer and asked how to sign up for a few shifts. Her motivation, she said later: “I have ridden horses and hiked in the mountains for years, and I thought it was time to pay it forward.”
The ranger district has also solicited the help of Talking Talons Youth Leadership Inc., an East Mountains nonprofit organization that has a program called “More Kids in the Winter Woods,” which focuses on getting young people involved with winter outdoor activities. It received a $20,000 grant from the ranger district to provide recommendations for ways to reopen Capulin.
The organization has been holding community meetings and has already sent volunteers to the site to fell dead trees. Their recommendations are expected in the spring.
Regardless of the recommendations, snowfall, or the lack of it, is out of everyone’s control.
“Last year,” recalled Wood, “there was snow in December and it didn’t snow after that.” About a foot needs to be on the ground so there’s enough, and if it gets too warm the snow gets muddy. Snow must also be cleared from the road leading up to Capulin. “It’s the last priority,” Morgan said, with clearing I-40 and other more trafficked roadways taking higher priority.
Still, everyone hopes conditions – weather and volunteers alike – will allow for some action on the slopes this winter. But, as Wood notes, “there’s only so much we can do.”