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No change in Sandia Pueblo balloon ban

With the Sandia Mountains in the background hot air balloons fly over the field at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in this 2014 file photo. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

With the Sandia Mountains in the background hot air balloons fly over the field at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in this 2014 file photo. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After a two-hour meeting with Sandia Pueblo tribal leaders Monday, Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Executive Director Paul Smith said the prohibition on balloon landings on pueblo land remains unresolved.

But Smith said he will meet with the tribal leaders later in the week and said he was hopeful of an amicable agreement on that and related issues. He declined to elaborate on those issues or the reason pueblo officials gave him for the more stringent rules on balloon landings and flyovers.

Until now, Smith said, Sandia Pueblo has never been a prohibited area; rather, “it’s a sensitive area” pilots are urged to avoid in landings.

Officials are concerned the new rules could put a big dent in New Mexico’s premier tourist event.

Under the new rules, announced by the pueblo just weeks before the start of the annual Balloon Fiesta, the 20,000-acre Sandia Pueblo located just north of Balloon Fiesta Park is off-limits for landing, and balloonists flying over pueblo land must maintain a height of at least 200 feet.

Scott Appelman, president and CEO of Rainbow Ryders, the fiesta’s official balloon ride operator, said if the new restrictions stand, they likely will drive away visitors and participants in Balloon Fiesta over time — including people who would have used Sandia Resort & Casino facilities.

It is unclear what prompted the pueblo’s new restrictions.

“We’ve been dealing with the (pueblo) Lands Department, and about a month ago they gave us an agreement that looked fine, and then the agreement changed after it went through their channels,” Smith said.

Knowing he was going to post the fiesta’s pilot video online over this past weekend, and that pilots would question the new rules, Smith said he left a message for Sandia officials, asking how to explain the change to pilots, but he never got a reply.

Calls by the Journal to the Sandia Pueblo tribal administration Monday were not returned. Calls to the Sandia Pueblo Police Department were referred back to the tribal administration.

Smith met Monday at the Sandia Pueblo government office with Lt. Gov. Stuart Paisano and Lt. Warchief J. Domingo Otero. Sandia Gov. Isaac Lujan was out of town and joined the discussion by telephone.

Prior to the meeting, Smith told the Journal there had never been any discussions about money or sponsorship deals and that he didn’t believe these things factored into the pueblo’s decision. He did note that the director of the pueblo’s Lands Department had expressed concern about safety to pedestrians and people on the ground.

2014 landings

In 2014, during the mass ascension held on the second Saturday, “a lot of balloons landed on State Road 313, the main road going north-south through the pueblo,” Smith said.

The wind was slow and blowing toward the north, and pilots didn’t have many landing choices. The road is adjacent to the railroad tracks, “and from what I understand there were a lot of spectators watching the balloons, and they may have gone up onto the railroad tracks.”

As a result of that, fiesta officials changed their maps and let pilots know that State Road 313 was no longer a landing zone.

The pueblo only has about a dozen police officers, he said, and before balloons that have landed on pueblo property can be retrieved, “there has to be a police escort to the landing site, so it certainly taxes their resources,” Smith said.

How often balloons land on Sandia Pueblo property is unknown, and pilots are not required to report those incidents to fiesta officials, Smith said. It’s unclear if the pueblo keeps a record of these landings.

Rainbow Ryders’ Appelman said that last year his company had 43 balloons flying for all nine days of fiesta. Of 387 flights made by his pilots, only one balloon landed on pueblo property.

Both Smith and Appelman said that in the past Sandia officials and police officers have been extremely friendly and helpful in retrieving balloons. Further, they said, Sandia Resort & Casino is a fiesta sponsor, and the pueblo owns a large tract of land adjacent to Balloon Fiesta Park that it rents to the fiesta for parking.

Appelman said if the new prohibitions remain in place, it will likely cause the cancellation of some launchings. On any given day of fiesta, “there’s probably about a 20 percent chance of a balloon going to the north, and when that happens there’s an 80 percent chance of a flyover or a landing on the pueblo.”

While pilots can often ascend to a higher elevation and catch a wind that takes them in a different direction, this is not always the case.

“We certainly don’t want balloonists trying to go over the mountains to avoid landing on the pueblo,” he said.

Appelman expressed concern that if Sandia Pueblo’s landing rules stand, “it could cause fiesta participants to avoid the event, knowing that it might ultimately affect their ability to fly.”

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