Notes from New Mexico – Documenting Ecotourism
From Albuquerque, highway 25 sprawls northeast to Santa Fe and Taos, alongside vast mountain ranges, beside pastel-red adobe homes and flashing casino lights, past cholla cacti and ranching supply stores and tribal reservations. The Rio Grande River Gorge cuts through the landscape, quietly winding south under a brilliant blue sky.
New Mexico is a place of converging cultures, a state where ranch lands border Native American reservations; where filmmakers, skiers, and artists flock; where Hispanics and descendants of Spanish conquistadors live together, along with 19 sovereign Native American nations. The topography is just as diverse, from sprawling deserts to high mountain ranges and pine forests.
I was in New Mexico with Green Living Project, a media production and marketing company that showcases sustainability initiatives around the globe, to check out the state’s ecotourism initiative.
Ecotourism is a bit of a nebulous concept — sort of like green living — but it encompasses “responsible travel” in its many forms, from educational programs to community building to protecting the environment. New Mexico’s tourism initiative is the first statewide program launched in the country — the first to have funding dedicated solely to creating an ecotourism network.
EcoNewMexico, a safari-outfitting company owned by husband and wife Charles and Sandy Cunningham, received the $250,000 state contract to launch the initiative and carve out the ecotourism niche in New Mexico. They’re working with an array of outfitters, hotels, and restaurants to bring together the state’s many disparate ecotourism efforts to not only create an ecotourism network, but also to define what it means, exactly, to be an ecotourism provider.
“We’re harnessing stuff that’s already here,” said Jennifer Hobson, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary of New Mexico Tourism. “Communities are already doing this stuff, and have been for decades. We’re just helping to direct them.”
Taos, a ski town nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, is one of EcoNewMexico’s pilot projects — destinations that already have the capacity, or desire, to accommodate this new type of tourist, one who stays longer and spends money in local communities.
But, ecotourism isn’t just about giving back while on vacation, said Stuart Wild, guide of Wild Earth Adventures, an adventure outfitter known for llama trekking. “If ecotourism isn’t inspiring people to go back to their communities and get involved, then its not working,” he said. “When people feel a connection to the natural world, that translates to their backyard.”
The cultural heart of Taos is the Taos Pueblo, the active community and historical home of the Taos Pueblo Indians, one of 19 (of an original 76) pueblos still intact in New Mexico.
Though about fifty members of Taos Pueblo live year-round in the 1,000-year-old town of adobe buildings — considered the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States — many members of the 2,800-person tribe split their time between adobe and cinder block, living part of the year in the pueblo and part of the year in the town of Taos. This physical transition is only one example of the convergence between traditional and modern that seems to characterize every aspect of the Taos Pueblo way of life.
Religion guides daily life, but it is a hybrid religion, combining aspects of the nature-based religion of the Pueblo — Mother Earth, for example — with Catholicism — the Virgin Mary, her parallel — which was introduced to (or forced upon) the Pueblo in the 1500s.
Every member of Taos Pueblo has an Indian name used within the community as well as a modern, Spanish surname used for legal documents and life outside the pueblo. Food is still gathered in the mountains above the pueblo, and bread is still baked in free-standing adobe ovens outside, but many members buy their food staples at groceries in town.
April Winters, a guide at Taos Pueblo, hopes ecotourism will introduce the community’s cultural heritage about ecological responsibility to a modern audience, to educate them about her culture’s tradition of living in connection with the natural world — and about what it means to live sustainably, as they’ve been doing for thousands of years.
While Taos Pueblo represents the cultural heritage, the natural heritage of the West is inextricable from the Rio Grande — the great river, the lifeblood of the land and so many of its inhabitants.
“The Rio Grande is the mater of the landscape,” said Steven Harris, an ardent conservationist and owner of Far Flung Adventures, a river-rafting outfitter. “Everything in landscape has the signature of the water on it.”
Like so many areas in the southwest, water in New Mexico is paramount — how much of it there is, who controls it, who uses it.
“Western rivers have all been overdeveloped. You go below the threshold of the river’s flow, and all these natural systems begin to unravel,” said Harris.
For outfitters like Harris, river rafting is more than just an opportunity for fun or recreation. When visitors interact with the river on such an intimate level — when they camp under stars and gather around a campfire — they gain a connection to the land.
“On the third day of a wilderness trek, something happens to people, to their time sense,” said Harris. “They begin to internalize what’s sacred here.”
On our last day in New Mexico, we visited Puye Cliffs, where in the 900s, the Pueblo Indians had built their winter homes — directly into the sheer rock face of the cliffs, open to the winter sun. We clambered up ladders traversing the cliffs to the broad mesa top overlooking the Pajarito Plateau.
It seemed like this view was the goal of ecotourism: beginning to understand the cultural heritage and rich history of Native Americans held in ruins like Puye Cliffs and in living communities like Taos Pueblo, and forging a connection to the land in a place where so many cultures, histories, and peoples converge.
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