Pajarito Mountain land transfer concerns are easy to resolve

Aaron Zhu / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Aaron Zhu / CC-BY-SA 3.0

As many citizens are aware, the complete ownership of Pajarito Mountain is planned for transfer to a private company, Pajarito Recreation, LLC (PRLLC). This has been controversial due to concerns about public access for non-skiing activities and natural resource conservation, which we have previously expressed ourselves.

We emphasize that PCA strongly supports all the uses of the mountain, including specifically downhill skiing and mountain biking as well as hiking, running, cross-country skiing, etc. We are not opposed to a public-private arrangement, we agree that PRLLC seems like a reasonable partner, and we acknowledge the good faith of the ski club and everyone else involved.

Accordingly, we believe that the transfer should move ahead, but the County Council should insist on two simple conditions before approving public funding for the water pipeline upon which this transfer depends.

1. Strong legal protections for preserving public access.

While we’d prefer an independently managed conservation easement, we believe that deed covenants, as preferred by PRLLC, would be sufficient, provided they are strong. Our concern here is that the draft language published in the ski club memo has several big loopholes.

We encourage the ski club, PRLLC, and the county council to collect public comment on this language before finalizing it.

2. Standing for the entire community on zoning changes.

Another key protection for the mountain is the current W-2 “Recreation Wilderness District” zoning. A public process is required to change this zoning.

However, only people who live within 300 feet of a proposed zoning change have standing to testify about that change. Only the Forest Service and the county government own land within that distance of the Pajarito Mountain property. Citizens of the county would not have standing to testify for or against the change.

For a flagship resource like Pajarito Mountain, this implication is concerning to us, and we hope it can be mitigated.

We believe these conditions will not slow the transfer significantly, will have no effect on the viability of skiing on the mountain, and will go a long way to allay the concerns regarding non-skiing recreation and natural resources, thus preserving the mountain as a resource for all citizens.

Pajarito Mountain land privatization

nsub1@flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

nsub1@flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There’s a new arrangement in the works that would completely privatize the mountain, contrary to citizens’ prior understanding. We are concerned about this. In addition to letters in the Post and Monitor written by PCA members, we sent the following letter to the County Council on October 2 (PDF version also available).

We will keep you updated on this issue. If you’re interested in helping out, please let us know.

Dear Dr. Izraelevitz and Councilors:

I write on behalf of the Pajarito Conservation Alliance, a non-profit community organization that supports the ecosystems and outdoor experience of the Pajarito Plateau.

We are concerned about the new arrangement for Pajarito Mountain that the Los Alamos Ski Club is pursuing with help from the county.

As you know, the original proposal was to transfer ownership of the ski area to the public, and a private company would operate it. This never happened, and now the club has voted to transfer ownership directly to this private company. The deal also includes public funding from the county for a water pipeline, which must be approved by you.

We believe this poses an unacceptable risk that the public will lose access to the mountain. We write to urge you not to approve this funding, because the contract does not adequately protect the public interest and has not received appropriate public input.

The community is assured that the ski area will be “Open and Available to the Public” (quotes are from the ski club’s memo to its membership), except under six exceptions, including “for health and safety reasons, as determined to be appropriate by [the private company] in its sole discretion”, “as may be required by [the company’s] liability insurance carrier”, and “to otherwise facilitate Ski Area business”. These are massive loopholes. Private companies routinely hire smart people full-time to defeat such protections; the above would not be much of a challenge.

Also, we are assured that the company’s “record” is “currently” aligned with the public interest. But companies get sold and leadership turns over; these changes are not a “sale of the property” that would give the county “first right of refusal to acquire the Ski Area”. Private companies are always under pressure to increase profits; will this pressure reliably align with the public interest? We find it very unlikely. Public/private partnership contracts must be written assuming that the company is unfriendly, even if that is not currently the case.

Bottom line: We believe the mountain will be closed to public access as soon as the company decides to do so.

We remind the Council what happened with the old Smith’s. At the time, councilors assured us repeatedly that Kroger’s incentives were aligned with ours and the space would definitely be occupied promptly. We were told Kroger was friendly and they didn’t want it empty either. But these guarantees did not make it into the contract, so now we have an empty building rotting away with no end in sight. As you see in the recent editorial pages, citizens are not happy.

We realize that there are no easy answers here, and we acknowledge and appreciate the hard work of the ski club and others. We worry about the future of local skiing too. However, the right answer is not to transfer ownership of Pajarito Mountain to a private, for-profit entity. This isn’t the only way to keep skiing in Los Alamos. We need a deal with strong, perpetual public access protections, whether or not skiing is a going concern. The current proposal is a bad deal and must be renegotiated.

The Ski Club can do what it likes with its land, but the county doesn’t have to go along with it. We have two requests for you.

First, please vote no when the public money comes to the council.

Second, most citizens are under the impression that Pajarito Mountain will be or already has been transferred to the public. The new, very different proposal deserves a serious effort to gather the public input and feedback that is appropriate for a decision of this magnitude and public interest.


/s/ Reid Priedhorsky

Reid Priedhorsky
Secretary, Pajarito Conservation Alliance