The Mora River Valley Faces a New Battle

A vista in the National Wildlife Refuge in Las Vegas, N.M.

There is a shortcut to finding the hot springs at Montezuma. You need only look for people hanging around the side of Highway 65. Or watch for locals hopping the guardrail and inching down the ravine.

Even getting to that spot sounded risky to me: It was nearing sundown, I was traveling alone and I was, after all, in Las Vegas, N.M. If you’ve seen “No Country for Old Men,” you’ll know what I’m talking about. It was filmed here. With good reason.

Nonetheless, I drove to the springs, five miles northwest of the town, and they were not what I expected. In contrast to the usual tony springs I’d seen in Northern California, ones with massage offerings, candles and aromatherapy, at Montezuma you sit on fractured concrete slabs surrounding murky pools. To get from one to the other — there are several, with varying temperatures — amid the brush, you practically need a machete.

There are snakes here, too. But the visitors I saw braving it all included a multigenerational Mexican family and a merry band of New Age hippies. Above us I saw the stately, turreted Montezuma Castle, built in 1886 as a hotel and now home to the United World College of the American West, founded by the oil tycoon Armand Hammer.

This was but one stop as I veered eastward from the well-trod Enchanted Scenic Byway that passes Santa Fe and Taos, making my way to the quiet and verdant Mora River Valley.

The endless, serene landscape there belies the fact that the fate of the land is being contested. The valley sits in Mora County, which in April 2013 became the first county in the nation to outlaw oil exploration and extraction. Since then, according to the nonprofit Food & Water Watch, 70 counties have approved such bans. In Mora County, the commissioners wanted to be clear, naming the restriction the “Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance.” Their aim was to protect water for use in local agriculture and other endeavors; in short, guaranteeing that the rights of nature and people supersede that of corporations.

The ordinance was a response to a proposal by Royal Dutch Shell to start hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, here. The company’s response to the response was to take the county to court, claiming the commissioners were robbing it of its “corporate personhood.” A second case was then brought by three Mora landowners who want to lease their property to oil and gas corporations. In each case, the plaintiffs say their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment are threatened; they equate the ban with seizing property without due process. Whatever the court decides could have broad implications for other municipalities that want to stave off the oil industry.

Read the case history related to “corporate personhood,” as well as language in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, and you will see that Mora may face an uphill legal battle. The cases against its county ordinance could languish for years in court but ultimately change the valley’s face forever.

So I took some time last August to explore the valley, a surprisingly lush region that during summer looks more like the foothills of the Swiss Alps than the mesas and deserts you’d expect in New Mexico.

You can spend a peaceful afternoon here picking raspberries at Salman Ranch, visiting an alpaca farm, touring lonely wooden 19th-century mills and a weaving center, hiking across the soaring Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the Mora River. Picturesque adobe farmhouses are scattered across the forested valley.

Twenty years ago, descendants of American Indian farming families set about restoring colonial mission chapels, such as the modest yet intimate Mission Church of San Rafael, with its adobe exterior and graceful stained-glass windows. Frank Waters set his 1941 novel “People of the Valley” here, and the ambience since then is little changed: Mora remains one of the most unspoiled regions of the state, and also one of New Mexico’s poorest, with more than 25 percent of families living below the poverty line. Somewhat understandably, the notion of possible royalties from fracking is attractive to many. Yet so is the wish for other revenue, such as from eco-tourism.

I spent one afternoon with John Olivas, a former commissioner who lobbied for the ordinance, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains he knows so well. We drove in his pickup with his two children to an off-road trailhead, through groves of aspen and scrub oak, pinyons and juniper and Ponderosa pines. He carried a shovel as he led me across a stream to a stretch of overgrown vines and waist-high grasses.

He was on the hunt for ligusticum porteri, or osha root, which takes some sleuthing to find. I wouldn’t have known it if I’d come across it, but while his children scampered and leapt across the stream, Mr. Olivas single-mindedly and as if guided by radar hacked his way through the foliage. After zeroing in on a member of the species, he got to digging and telling me of the root’s many medicinal powers; he uses it in tea to treat body aches and head colds. It’s one example, he explained, of how Mora’s people still hold tight to traditional Native American practices.

This land was once inhabited by the Jicarilla Apaches, then by Spanish conquistadors in the 1600s, followed by French trappers in the 1700s drawn by the streams. The Santa Fe Trail, that 19th-century byway, crosses the eastern part of the valley, passing through Fort Union National Monument. For the last century, logging, farming and ranching have driven Mora’s economy.

I revisited some of the valley’s history the next day at the Cleveland Roller Mill Museum. (The mill is currently closed but reopens Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day.) The Mora Valley once supplied wheat flour to Fort Union in nearby Watrous, sparking an agricultural boom and earning it the moniker “New Mexico’s Bread Basket,” and the Cleveland Roller Mill, built in 1901, contributed to that. By the 1940s, with urbanization and industrialization on the rise, the milling industry saw a steady decline. In 1979, the two-story adobe and stone mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places; restoration began in 1984. I walked among the massive pulleys and cogs, flour mill stands and cold steel rolls, and looked at framed maps illustrating that the supply region once extended to Taos and Truchas. The Cleveland Roller Mill is one of the few in the state with its original milling works intact.

A short drive to the south of Cleveland, a different milling craft was just beginning. At the Mora Valley Spinning Mill in Mora, I followed the mill manager, Daryll Encinias, as he showed me the olive-green machinery and handlooms used to spin yarn and weave the vibrant rugs hanging for sale in the center’s gallery. The Spinning Mill had recently opened its Coffee Barn inside the gallery, featuring an espresso machine inherited from the Traveler’s Cafe in Las Vegas and organic teas. There are plans to build a culinary arts center here, too.

One of the few active wool mills in the United States, the Spinning Mill is a pretty mile’s drive south from the Victory Alpaca Ranch, which I visited the next day. I first wandered out to the wooden fences penning in the fluffy animals, and watched as a mother hovered over her baby as it stood up to walk, and then as they both scampered off to nibble on bales of hay. Later, while browsing in the gift shop, I overheard the ranch’s manager, Darcy Weisner, chatting with another visitor about plans to build a vodka distillery on the grounds.

“We get visitors from Texas, lots of kids and families with dads who don’t know what to do with themselves here,” Brian McGill, Darcy’s husband, told me later. “We’ve been open for more than 20 years, and now there’ll be another reason to stop in.”

When the distillery opens this year, he said, the vodka sold will be flavored with northeastern New Mexican green chiles, Salman Ranch raspberries and native yerba buena that grows along the acequias, or canals, crisscrossing the valley.

From the Mora River Valley, I ended up in Las Vegas and, after checking into the Sunshine Motel, I drove out to the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, five miles southeast of town. Fourteen square miles of marshes, woodlands and grasslands here are home to more than 250 bird species. The northern pintail and sandhill crane, among other birds that stop here along the Central Flyway before wintering in Central and South America, are listed among the species most in need of conservation in the Canadian Watershed around Mora. Badgers, antelopes, mule deer and coyotes inhabit the area, too.

Later that day, I was in the Montezuma hot springs. While soaking and looking up at the castle, I thought of Armand Hammer, who ran Occidental Petroleum for decades while dedicating much of his time to philanthropy. The Mora Valley and its environs had been through successive waves of intrusion and industry. Perhaps another would come. But for now, I was glad to take in the searing and serene vista.

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