Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Driving up to Sandia Crest over the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, cross-country skier Nick Heine saw the winter sights you typically see while cautiously navigating the curves and climb of state Highway 536.
Towering pines decked in snow. Occasional rays of sunshine piercing the clouds and glinting across fresh snow. A kid on a sled shooting past a “No Sledding” sign and onto the snow-packed two-lane highway.
“The 10k (Trailhead) parking lot had signs that said ‘no sledding’ and there’s parents standing there, with their camera in hand, watching their kids sledding past the no-sledding sign and into the road,” Heine said in a phone interview last week. “There’s no police, no rangers telling people to stop doing that.
“So you’ve got drivers coming around a blind corner on an icy road that can’t stop, and there’s kids sliding into the road.”
Exacerbating that problem, he said, are the “100 plus” vehicles parked illegally along the 13½-mile highway that runs from the village of San Antonito to the top of the 10,678-foot Sandia Peak.
Meanwhile, the Capulin Snow Play Area – which underwent a million-dollar renovation in 2010 and remains the only place on the mountain specifically designed for sledding – was closed because the U.S. Forest Service says there isn’t enough snow.
Capulin has been the subject of criticism directed at the Forest Service, which in previous years said it was closed because there wasn’t enough staffing to supervise. Now, the agency says it has designed Capulin as “unstaffed” – but it still isn’t open.
Heine said the parking situation was particularly bad at the turnoff to the Capulin, about midway up the mountain. The gate to the popular sledding area was closed and locked, with a notice that the area – built in 1968 to discourage sledders and tubers from flying down makeshift runs scattered throughout the area – has yet to open this year.
“If that (Capulin) parking lot had been open, that would have certainly given people a better place to park” than on the highway, Heine said.
Crystal Powell is district ranger for the Cibola National Forest’s Sandia Ranger District, which includes nearly all of the Sandia Mountains. She said the Capulin area – which has three sledding hills, two parking lots, restrooms and a picnic area – was closed because of insufficient snow.
“We recognize that it’s a very popular winter destination for sledding and we want to continue to provide that opportunity,” Powell said.
“But it poses a significant challenge to us every winter due to hazardous road conditions and insufficient snow depths for safe operations.”
Forest Service standards require a minimum snow base of 12 inches at sledding areas. As of Wednesday, she said the Capulin area had only 6 inches of snow.
Cibola National Forest supervisor Elaine Kohrman said the 12-inch base requirement has been in effect since 2012. It was adopted to ensure the safety of sledders and Capulin’s natural resources.
Although there are a few areas along Highway 536 suitable for safe sledding, none of them has nearby parking.
“Given the steepness of the area and the limited access, the opportunities (for sledding and tubing) are limited,” she said. “We just don’t have perfect locations for sledding” other than the Capulin Snow Play Area.
Powell said she’s well aware of the illegal sledding and parking along Highway 536, and that forest rangers do their best to keep everyone safe.
“We have a couple of staffers who monitor the mountain, but we don’t have enough staff to manage the crowds” that show up on snowy weekends, she said. “It’s challenging. It’s hard to manage that many people.”
The Forest Service maintains only four parking lots during the winter months: part of the parking lot at Sandia Crest, the 10k and Ellis trailhead lots and, when it’s open, the Capulin Snow Play Area parking lot. The area’s largest parking lot is at the privately operated Sandia Peak Ski Area.
Although Forest Service officials in the past have cited a lack of available staff to supervise the snow play area as a reason for not opening the Capulin more often, Kohrman said that, as of this year, the Capulin is designated an “unstaffed” area and no longer requires Forest Service staffing. The change was made in an effort to allow the area to be used more, she said.
So far, that hasn’t happened this winter.
But any spot along the route that has enough open space and a snowy slope tends to become an impromptu – and illegal – sledding and tubing area. Because of their steepness, proximity to the highway, and natural hazards like fallen logs and hidden boulders, nearly all of those areas are closed to sledding, Powell lsaid.
The Forest Service posts “No Sledding” closure signs at those areas and forest rangers can issue citations to offenders. But they typically just inform sledders that the area is closed, explain the safety issues and ask them to stop sledding there, Powell said.
Who’s in charge?
While the Forest Service is responsible for policing “No Sledding” areas, it has no jurisdiction to enforce “No Parking” areas along the state highway, Powell said. That falls to State Police or the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department.
Sgt. Chad Pierce, spokesman for the State Police, said officers routinely patrol Highway 536, but received no calls over the long, snowy MLK holiday weekend that would have promoted a response.
Pierce said State Police did not issue any no-parking citations along that route that weekend. The sheriff’s department didn’t respond to a query about patrolling on Highway 536.
But Powell said Thursday that, once a 12-inch base is achieved – which could be this weekend – the Forest Service will open the area. Once it’s open, rangers will monitor the snow conditions and will close the area if the slopes become icy or there’s not enough snow to protect the vegetation beneath.
She warned, however, that Capulin is an unsupervised area, and sledders and tubers need to exercise caution.
“We have signs posted that inform visitors about rules for safe sledding, the danger associated with sledding and that they are sledding at their own risk,” Powell said.
Forest Service officials have sought volunteers to oversee the snow play area and assist sledders at the Capulin in the past, but to no avail.
The Forest Service partnered with the Talking Talons Youth Leadership organization in 2014, but interest in overseeing Capulin waned and the volunteer base dissolved, she said.
In 2012 and 2013, the Forest Service released requests for proposals from businesses or organizations interested in operating the snow play area, but received none. Powell said the Forest Service might try that approach again.
She noted that the Capulin parking lots can accommodate about 120 vehicles and that they fill up quickly. That, unfortunately, can again lead to people parking illegally on Highway 536.
She said opening the Capulin parking lots when the play area is closed, as Heine suggested, leads to people illegally using the sledding hills.
“People park on the highway and walk in there even when it’s closed,” Powell said. Ignoring closures can lead to fines and jail time, she said.
Bernadette Bell, spokeswoman for District 3 of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, said road crews plowed Highway 536 as far as the Capulin Snow Play Area gate over last weekend’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but didn’t plow farther up 536 until later in the week because that section of the road is not high on the district’s priority list.
The priority list, based on highway usage, has Interstate 40 at the top, followed by state Highways 14, 333, 337 and 217. Highway 536 is at the third level, she said.
Bell said signs are posted at the turnoff from state Highway 14 to 536 at San Antonito warning people that hazardous road conditions are likely to exist during the winter months. Tire chains are required on snow-packed roads north of the ski area.
She advises people to check www.nmroads.com or call 511, the department’s road conditions information line, before driving in areas impacted by snow.
Heine – who described his cross-country ski trek last weekend as “fantastic” – said he would like to see more wintertime enforcement of the no-parking regulations along the highway.
“In the summertime, it’s not five minutes after you get out of your car that a ranger is there reminding you to fill out your paid parking slip,” he said.