All good things come to an end, the saying goes, and for easy access to the Manby Hot Springs, that end is finally in sight. Locals and tourists alike have been accessing the hot springs (also known as the Stagecoach Hot Springs) through Tune Drive for decades. However, due to renewed frustration by area homeowners and newly promised enforcement by the Bureau of Land Management, the access to the hot springs through Tune Drive will be closed off.
The effort to prevent hot spring access has been gaining traction over the past couple of years as the road conditions on Tune Drive get worse and worse. Two neighborhood associations - the Stagecoach Neighborhood Association (SNA) and the Hondo Mesa Community Association (HMCA) - along with the BLM have teamed up to explain exactly why access is being closed off, or rather, was never legally accessed.
"Tune Drive has never been 'open' to the public," explained SNA vice president Sherry Popham. "It has always been a private road that crosses property like mine. A large sign at the entrance states this and says 'no trespassing'."
The access that people have been using for decades is indeed private land, and an "scenic easement" agreement between the US Secretary of the Interior and George P. Tune, the private landowner, clarifies that the intent of the easement is to protect the scenic and "pristine" nature of the area.
BLM public affairs specialist Jillian Aragon explained how a scenic easement differs from other easements. "Its purpose is for conservation, not public use. The scenic easement is on private property and does not allow for public access. Even if there were a county or public road, the scenic easement itself is not legally open to the public," she clarified.
Doug Wingo, who lives near the northern side of Tune Drive near County Road B-007, explained that the road was "never designed to be used for public access … They have no legal right to have access out here. It's all private property."
He said that most of the tourists he has talked to simply don't know the rules. "They don't know it's private property. That's the big part. That's the whole issue about this - public education."
Too much trash
The issue had been festering for several years, as homeowners on Tune Drive and Calle Filiberto began to grumble that their privately maintained roads were becoming more impassable, and litter was beginning to pile up.
Doug Daubert, president of the SNA, said that many homeowners on Tune Drive "actually own to the middle of the road … they've had to carry extra liability insurance on their properties because people are driving down their road."
He said access through both Tune Drive and County Road B-007 has become "impassable unless you have a four wheel drive, God forbid if it's rained or it's been snowing out." He said he wouldn't even go as far as to describe B-007 as a road, "it's just where people have driven it. There's no road material on it."
Daubert said this came to a head "because of the degradation that was happening at Manby Hot Springs, and the volume of traffic that was coming down there." He said that on one random winter day, he and his wife passed 37 people in 45 minutes.
This is in large contrast to the hot springs experience the Dauberts had in past years. He said when they first moved to the area "you could go down to the hot springs and you could be there on a Christmas Day and be by yourself. Now, you can't go down there without hordes of people."
Andrew Yates, the temporary acting manager for the HMCA, said he saw an uptick in tourist traffic during the pandemic. "It's gotten really bad since COVID began and the whole van life movement [started]," he said. "We've had a surge of people, mostly from out of town and out of state just driving on the roads here to get to the hot springs and then camping out there." Camping has always been strictly prohibited.
Yates said the camping had gotten so bad that "a whole little homeless encampment there with couches [developed], the whole deal. I mean, it's awful."
Daubert said that the influx of people has brought with them a seeming lack of care about the natural environment. He said that the natural petroglyphs have been defaced with graffiti, living trees in the area have been cut for firewood, and people have started camping out for days or weeks.
Wingo added that he feels the problems indeed came with the increased traffic. "Especially in the last couple years, we've just been inundated with tourist traffic trying to get to the hot springs," he said. "People are driving cross country just to come out to the hot springs. I have talked to a lot of the tourists who come out here and try to educate them on what's going on."
Many of the neighbors blame the increase in tourist traffic on the rise of the internet and social media, and directions can be found to Manby Hot Springs (with no mention of a private road) on sites like Youtube, Alltrails.com and TripAdvisor.
"As recently as the last three years, and continuing daily, damage is occurring to the natural resources on the scenic easement due to incorrect public usage," said BLM Taos Field Manager Pamela Mathis in a statement. "It is our goal to begin restoration projects with community groups over the next year to restore the intent of the scenic easement."
Popham lauds the BLM's efforts to protect the easements original intention. "The area ... is so scarified and so many new trails to [the hot springs] have been created that heavy monsoonal rains could produce landslides off the Rim that would endanger the springs and the river below," she said. "Reclamation is essential before that point of no return is achieved. It has been loved to near-death."
Taos County Commissioner AnJanette Brush has been actively listening to public concerns, and has brought the county on board to help in whatever ways they can. Though they are not driving the decisions, Brush said they "do want to be a partner.
"I think everybody is on the same page about the goal of protecting that land ... the degradation is significant and exhilarating. We share the goals that the community, the neighborhood associations, and the BLM have, which is to protect it from further degradation."
Brush hopes the county can facilitate an open conversation, and perhaps get creative about the ways to utilize one of the county's prized gems; perhaps river guides could offer Manby Hot Springs rafting trips, she suggested. "I like getting creative like that. We know we have a problem, but we also have this treasure, where do we meet in the middle to both protect and allow enjoyment?"
Not only will the enforcement of the easement's original intent block tourists from accessing the Manby Hot Springs, it will cut off access to the neighbors of Tune Drive and Calle Filiberto. This is because the only legal access to the hot springs are by floating the river, or by walking along the riverbank.
"Keep in mind that most HOA members understand and support BLM reclamation of the area even though it means that we won't have access to the springs either," said Popham.
"We know that there's going to be people that aren't going to have access. And the hot springs - we need to be very clear - are not being shut down," stressed Daubert. "The only legal access is floating the river or walking a fisherman's trail along the river. That has always been the only way. It has just never ever been enforced the entire time."
Aragon added that "it's important to help the community understand that it has access to Manby Hot Springs on the Río Grande and through trails accessed from the John Dunn bridge, but not from the scenic easement on the rim."
The Taos County Sheriff's office will also help play a role in enforcement.
Another way the neighborhood associations are considering enforcing the new rules is to put gates up at either end of Tune Drive, and discussions are still in the works.
Comments from locals on social media were abundant as the news began to break last week.
Bennett Black suggested making an access point from the west side of the gorge. "I'd pitch in to help rebuild the old stagecoach route on the west side of the gorge if they're serious about closing off access to the east side," he said. Many others supported this idea.
"I hope everyone will consider that at least it would be good to let this place recover from misuse. If we genuinely appreciate and value what it has to offer we know it needs to be protected," said Brooke Tatum. "I am still not clear on what is best but I am feeling that having a break from use for a while would benefit this special place. It needs a break."
Others argued back and forth about the legality of access, with many mistakenly believing Tune Drive to be a county road, and the easement area to be public land.
Chris Tucs is a local who made his first visit to the Manby Hot Springs 16 years ago, when he was brought there by a local friend. "This is a very sacred space, it's really important that you guys respect it and don't trash the land, and, you know, enjoy it," his friend told him.
When Tucs found out that Tune Drive access was being closed off due to degradation and disrespect for the area, he was upset. "It kind of breaks my heart that people are trashing it, and abusing it and not treating it right ... I'm guessing there's a high percentage of people that do respect it, and that do take care of it and appreciate it. But there are those that aren't, and that's kind of upsetting.
"I think the way I was brought into the place being taught to respect it is huge." Tucs said he has been looking at all the angles, and has been "searching for solutions … where both parties could be happy. That's kind of where I'm at with it."
Tucs suggested that maybe the county could maintain the road and that it could become a public access again, but Sherry Popham said the point is moot. Even if the Tune Drive became a county maintained road, the easement still prevents anyone from parking and accessing the springs.
Another individual who chose to remain anonymous due to their connection to the BLM, said they "understand people need some relief from piles of trash and piles of human feces, but at the same time, something else needs to happen that doesn't involve denying access to pretty much everybody."
They went on to wonder what some of the ramifications may be. "If access gets closed down to this spring, what's going to happen to the other spring? What happens to the John Dunn Bridge area? Does that become so overwhelmed that they have to close that off now too?" they wondered.
"I'm not really sure what the answer is here. It's just kind of sad to see that this is the way it's gonna go."