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Could Mt. Cristo Rey start new Rio Grande Trail?

LAS CRUCES – An El Paso museum group pitched an idea in the first week of the year to a state commission that met in Las Cruces: An in-the-works Rio Grande hiking trail could start at the foot of Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park.

The nonprofit, called Insights El Paso Science Center, owns a 211-acre parcel of land in New Mexico at the base of the mountain that contains dinosaur tracks. Officials with the organization told the Rio Grande Trail Commission that they’re eyeing their options for the future of the parcel, including transferring ownership to another entity that would work to preserve its resources and educate the public about them.

“This could potentially be a great trail head for the Rio Grande Trail,” said Ellen Esposito, chairwoman of the Insights El Paso governing board.

The state commission is tasked with overseeing the creation of a trail that would run the more-than-500-mile length of New Mexico along the Rio Grande.

Officials with the organization said the museum carries out tours with school groups and other community members at the Mount Cristo Rey site. But the land and location have abundant potential – not only scientifically, but also culturally – that has yet to be tapped into, they said.

“We know this is a great resource and we’re putting our heads together to try to figure out how to use it,” said Mandy Kirchgessner, executive director for the Insights El Paso Science Center. “We don’t know the best way to preserve it on our own.”

Also, the organization doesn’t have the funding it would like to preserve the trackways, such as by applying lacquer or building shelters over the fossils to protect against the elements, Kirchgessner told trail commission members.

The trackways were uncovered because the site is a former quarry. And Jobe Concrete Productions Inc., now known as Cemex Construction Materials, donated the land in 2007 to Insights El Paso, according to Esposito.

The site is located near the boundaries of New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. The top of the mountain features a prominent landmark – a massive sculpture of Jesus Christ and a cross – and is the focus of a yearly Catholic pilgrimage that can attract tens of thousands of people. The Rio Grande, too, is nearby.

State Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who sponsored legislation to establish the proposed Rio Grande Trail, said the Insights El Paso group “definitely sparked a lot of interest” among several attendees at the trail commission meeting, which took place at Hotel Encanto. The proposal could help to attract visitors to the region.

“When you combine the dinosaur-era footprints that exist there with the other paleontological resources we have here in the county, it’s just one more thing that can make Doña Ana County a destination for people,” he said.

Ancient attractions

North of Las Cruces, the Rio Grande passes by the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, which contains 280-million-year-old fossilized footprints of pre-dinosaur creatures.

Fossilized trackways that can be seen at the Mount Cristo Rey site include those of theropods, hadrosaurs or iguanodons, creatures that lived in the Cretaceous Period, according to Insights El Paso. The period lasted from 144 million to 65 million years ago, according to the San Diego Natural History museum.

The museum organization has led 212 tours at the site since May 2015, according to Esposito. Excluding pilgrims, who must past through the acreage en route to the top of the mountain, another 120 people self-reported having visited the trackways.

“We estimate that’s probably a fifth of the number of people who actually went to the site,” she said.

There have been no decisions made about whether the Sunland Park property will wind up as an actual trail head for the Rio Grande Trail. But Esposito said her organization wanted to start a dialogue about the possibility.

Asked whether the group would consider donating the land, Espositio replied: “We just have to have the conversations. I’m one person; I’m the president of the board. But we have a board that would need to make the recommendation. We just want to have the conversations to see what can be done and who can help with that.”

Insights El Paso runs an interactive museum near downtown El Paso. But Esposito said the organization also hosts tours for school and community groups at the Mount Cristo Rey site.

Trail update

The Rio Grande Trail proposal is still in its infancy. Legislation took effect July 1 of last year, calling for the trail’s establishment. The trail commission’s early January meeting in Las Cruces was its third session.

Rio Grande Trail commissioners heard an update about a proposal by the New Mexico Department of Transportation to spend about $500,000 of mainly federal funds to create a master plan for the trail and work out its alignment across the state.

“Now funding is being dialed in to do some serious comprehensive planning,” Steinborn said.

Work has been done in a previous study on the trail proposal for the southern part of New Mexico. Steinborn said he expects that will be drawn into the larger master plan.

Some segments of existing river side trails, such as La Llorona Park in Las Cruces, could eventually become part of the statewide river trail. Steinborn noted, however, that different jurisdictions would have to sign on to the proposal for that to happen.

“Local communities will have a say in that,” he said.

Parts of the trail – or even parallel segments of the trail – could cater to horse riders and bicyclists.

“The goal of the trail is, accommodate multiple users when feasible,” Steinborn said.

State Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela, a member of the trail commission, pointed out that, north of Sunland Park, a segment of about 10 miles of the Rio Grande actually passes through Texas before re-entering New Mexico. He said collaborating with Texas would likely be needed.

Steinborn said he envisions the trail as being an economic driver, spurring tourism and spending. He said he and two friends last year visited the famous Appalachian Trail and hiked a 50-mile stretch.

“The amount of money that’s spent not only on flying in, but on hotels, backpacks, tents, hiking provisions,” he said. “It’s big business and it’s something that, if marketed well, can bring very good economic development to all parts of New Mexico that are along this trail, and bring tourists into shops and encourage some jobs for us.”

Steinborn said the creation of the trail will entail lots of logistical considerations and, because of that, it won’t happen overnight.

“It’s good for people to understand that this is something that’s going to take time, but progress is being made,” he said.

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