Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.


Sometimes the information cycle we live in can result in a lot of small bits of information being presented, with very few people fully absorbing these tiny details. In psychology the “recency effect” often makes the last item of a list or sequence the easiest to remember. Why is this important? Whether by design or coincidence, it was easy to miss the recent call for input regarding a roller coaster on Sandia Mountain. Yes, a roller coaster. 

Now, see there; you remembered roller coaster, right?

This is why it was understandable that when the Forest Service opened up the public comment period for one week, few felt it was publicized in a timely matter. Many felt they didn’t know a public comment was being sought for the project. The Forest Service says that this call for opinions isn’t considered a “formal comment period,” rather a “public scoping period,” as Forest Service District Ranger Krystal Powell explained. “The deadline was April 1. We are looking for comments that will help us make a decision and define resource conditions or problems we are not aware of.” These comments will help the Forest Service interdisciplinary review team decide if an environmental impact study must happen. Generally, a cultural and environmental assessment would occur in most cases, followed by a formal public comment period.

The opposite of “recency” is “primacy”—the idea of remembering the first in a list or sequence. So which came first? Sandia Mountain is Tiwa Territory, always has been and always will be. When news about this development came out, recency was in full effect and about to clash with primacy.

 A roller coaster? “Seriously?” said Julia Fay Bernal, director of Pueblo Action Alliance, as she found out about the proposed development on her ancestral lands. “I always harshly critique the outreach from federal entities. It’s a result of the work we do at PAA in terms of advocacy, community voice and participation in the discussion of development on ancestral lands.”

Bernal was doing her usual rounds of federal information checkups and came across the comment listing by chance, then noticed the date was ending the next day. She mobilized online and sought to add the Indigenous voice to the stream of nearly 700 public comments collected since December.

Bernal said she was initially taken off guard by the “scoping period,” mentioning that it was not something many of her own tribal members knew about or were actively discussing. The Paper. reached out to Sandia Pueblo for comment but did not get a reply. “It brings back up all the past issues we have had concerning our sacred lands and the rights to claim areas on the mountain,” said Bernal. “The mountain is still significant and sacred to us, and as a tribal member, I would hate to see a mountain roller coaster added to the development there.”

Her sentiment was echoed by many. Public letters in opposition from groups like New Mexico Wild, the Central New Mexico Audubon Society, Northern N.M. Sierra Club, 3 Sisters Collective and others are available for public view.

The Central New Mexico Audubon Society’s statement calls for consideration of the avian habitats on Sandia. “While the window for construction has to take advantage of good weather, the months of April-September would negatively impact bird species. Mid-April through mid-July is the breeding period for most species and should be avoided if at all possible. Construction noise has been associated with declining bird densities, prompting concern that many species may be excluded from suitable habitats as a result of ecological sensitivities or intolerance to noise. A plethora of studies links noise alone to a reduction in nesting species richness, which ultimately leads to different avian communities. “

They go on to say, “Without tribal and pueblo consultation, the Cibola National Forest (CNF) cannot determine the presence or lack of presence of religious or cultural sites.  These resource conditions, and the direct cause-effect relationship between constructing and operating a coaster whose impacts include increased noise and visitors, along with the public concern already raised, indicate a need for a level of analysis deeper than achieved by issuing a CE (categorical exclusion).”

The above statement was very interesting because it mentioned quite bluntly the need for tribal consultation. Like Pueblo Action Alliance and Bernal, its consultation groups are continually making calls for but are often not heard.

Forest Service Ranger Powell explains, “This is not a voting process. The best type of comment you can provide is details and ideas that may not have been taken into consideration. Something that can help us make determinations and will allow us to do additional studies if needed. Tribal consultation is ongoing. We work with tribal partners very early on in the process.”

Upon review of many of the plans, two things stand out. There is parking for this area, and the developers expect riders to use the Tram. Secondly, people’s interpretation of what a mountain coaster is might not match reality. Many envision a Six Flags-style multi-car coaster whizzing past with people screaming their heads off. When in fact, these are one or two-person cars that follow a twisting trail system up to speeds of 60mph, but with no loops or heights above 10ft. Far from being a serious thrill seeker ride, it’s more of a subtle family adventure. The operators of the Sandia Peak Ski Area have been looking for different ways to increase revenue, but not to necessarily increase their footprint on the mountain. Sandia Ski anticipates this project will bring much-needed summer income and provide summer jobs for the area. And it’s allowed by their special-use permit.

For now, the development issue will be its own roller coaster of emotions and opinions. But as the Forest Service says, opinions don’t make decisions—facts and actual pertinent arguments do. So we end again on “recency.” Remember this story in a few months when we find out what decisions the Forest Service made regarding the coaster.