Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Regarding Los Alamos open space

Los Alamos has hired some trail consultants to produce a trails master plan. I attended a working group meeting in early December to discuss the matter. This post outlines some ideas on Los Alamos open space and what I think we ought to do. (My previous post on the topic addressed a specific proposal for a bike park.)

I’ll open with some of my observations about the state of open space in Los Alamos, and then propose some guiding principles based on those. Finally, I offer a smorgasbord of specific policy recommendations.


I grew up in Los Alamos, left for 12 years when I graduated from high school, and returned a year ago. I love the outdoors and spend as much time outside as I can. Given that context, here’s what I’ve noticed:
  • We have extraordinary and unique open space. Los Alamos County has 11,000-foot mountains, large and small tuff canyons, large and small basalt canyons, ponderosa forests, spruce/fir forests, piƱon-juniper forests, meadows, mountain and canyon streams, mesas, the Rio Grande, a national monument, tremendous views, and much much more. What I find most amazing is how intimately Los Alamos proper is embedded in this open space: the canyons in the middle of town mean that most anyone has access within a few minutes walk to places that may be a stone’s throw from someone’s back yard but feel like they’re in the middle of nowhere. Few, if any, other towns in the world have what we have.
  • Our open space is at risk. For example, in my own memory, large blocks of county forest that I spent considerable time in were lost to development (Ponderosa Estates and Quemazon), and there are continual pressures for development such as the recent golf course flap. Forest Service land abutting the town has no particular protections, and there’s precedent for transferring it to others. LANL can develop its open space as it wishes.
  • We have an access problem. While there’s quite a lot of nearby open space we have great access to, it turns out there’s also a lot we don’t, for various reasons. For example, DOE land, pueblo land, and the Valle Grande are wholly or partially off limits. When a home turns over or new homes are built, traditional access to the woods through the private land can be lost. Also, trails on DOE land are frequently closed; as a scientific and security institution with various amusing political pressures, LANL is understandably not all that interested in managing for recreation.
  • Our town is too dependent on the lab. Los Alamos is a one-company town, and its economic health is tightly entangled with LANL and the vagaries of its federal funding stream. In trying to move past that and seek economic stability, we should find our competitive advantage: what can we offer that others can’t? Retail development that excludes local business certainly isn’t the answer; maybe an outdoor-focused economy is.
The point being: our open space has tremendous value, and community policy should reflect that.


Any robust policy or plan needs to have a small number of guiding principles. In the case of Los Alamos County open space policy, I propose these three:
  1. Preservation. Open Space should be preserved in its natural state, and existing impacts should be mitigated.
  2. Access. Human access for non-motorized recreation should be provided to the maximum reasonable extent. Any limitations on access or activities, whether based on ecology, security, politics, or otherwise, should be as focused as possible.
  3. Collaboration. Los Alamos County should work with nearby land owners, large and small, to build an integrated ecosystem of open space that works towards the above two principles.
As an aside, these highlight a key flaw in the focus of the meeting I attended: any master plan should not be about trails. It should be about open space. Trail planning is only part of that.

Some recommendations

Given the above principles, here are some things that I believe we as a community ought to do. To start, we need some policy changes:
  • Add to the county’s strategic plan a specific acknowledgement of the value of Los Alamos open space and the above principles.
  • Rezone unbuilt county land in a way that preserves its natural character in perpetuity.
  • Compute and publish open space metrics to compare our access to open space to other communities. For example, a common metric is something like “miles of trail within N minutes’ walk of the average home”; I don’t care for this one because I believe the focus on trails is wrong, as I’ve noted above. Rather, how about something like “acres of open space within 1 mile of the average home”?
Also, the county should initiate collaboration efforts with nearby landowners and other interests; for example:
  • Seek federal protections for Forest Service land adjacent to town. Wilderness designation is one option, though perhaps not appropriate here because it prohibits mountain bikes. But there must be something that protects Forest Service land from development and the impact of motorized access.
  • Work with DOE to secure non-motorized recreational access to DOE land (e.g., in Los Alamos Canyon). This could include targeted land transfer requests, or perhaps the county could take over trail management and the corresponding liability for targeted lands, leaving security responsibilities with LANL. (This would better align institutional incentives with open space access.)
  • Seek easements through yards to access open space. For example, at Arizona Ave. & Club Road and the terminus of San Ildefonso Road on North Mesa. This should be low pressure — if a given homeowner isn’t interested, that’s fine, and the county should not continue to bother him or her. Nearby properties may also be options. However, the county should also maintain a list of desired access points and approach new owners when targeted properties turn over.
Finally, here are some things we should build or do:
  • Write a comprehensive, long-term master plan for trails. This is apparently in the works — i.e., the county is actually spending money on it — which is great!
  • Mark the trails better, to distinguish officially maintained county trails from social trails. Ideas include:
    • Classier signs. Right now trails are marked with tacky fiberglass stakes; let’s instead put up nice wooden, metal, or stone ones that reflect the quality of our trail network.
    • An official county cairn, perhaps in two variants (main trail and access). We could have a multi-stage public contest to produce robust, easy-to-build, recognizable designs that can be constructed in any local environment.
    • Improved printing on trailhead kiosks; currently, all but the newest ones have severe fading problems. Also, kiosks need an easy-to-read locator map with a “you are here” indicator.
  • Complete the Perimeter Trail. Currently you can go from roughly the cemetery around the northwest side of town to the ice rink in Los Alamos canyon. The Perimeter Trail should be extended to form a true loop around town: down Los Alamos canyon to the Y, then up and over the mesas to Rendija Canyon and back to the cemetery.
  • Complete an extended Perimeter Trail which loops past Bandelier and White Rock.
  • Build a road biking loop from town to Bandelier, White Rock, and back up to town. This could follow NM502, NM4, and the truck route with proper shoulder extensions.
  • Build quality road bike access from the back gate up into the mountains to the Valle Grande and beyond.
  • Create a “Jemez Mountains Grand Loop Trail”. This would be a long trail, on the order of 200 miles, which wound a loop through the Jemez Mountains. The point would be to create a world-class long trail — perhaps a National Scenic Trail — with buy-in from all the communities surrounding the Jemez. Perhaps there could be a variant allowing one to stay in the backcountry for the full 200 miles and a variant where one traveled light from community to community and stayed in hotels or bunkhouses instead of backpacking. (I’m not the first to have ideas like this; in particular, Dorothy Hoard and others have floated the idea of a Valles Caldera loop trail.)


  1. With its extensive embedded open space, how amenable is Los Alamos to carless living? A first guess suggests that the weather makes bicycles a more visibly feasible year-round plan than they might be in colder climates, if there is not good transit.

  2. Michael,

    That's a great question.

    Right now, I'd say it is much more difficult than someplace like Minneapolis.

    Bicycling is feasible year round, but it does take dedication. For example, right now it's 6 degrees out and there are lots of icy patches. (Keep in mind that we're at 7,500 feet altitude.) Roads do improve quickly in the sun. The treatment of bicycles by vehicles is average to poor, but light traffic means it's generally not a big deal. A few of the major roads have bike lanes, but notably not the one to the co-op which is 50 MPH.

    Transit is superb for a town of 18,000 people, but compared to a city it's not very good. Most locations are served every 30 to 60 minutes, with the high frequency downtown loop every 20 minutes. You have to transfer to get from most neighborhoods to downtown. Outlying areas of LANL are served only by LANL's internal taxi service, which is slow and unreliable. Transit runs only on weekdays until about 7 or 8 pm. A significant upside is that it's free. Also, usage is far beyond planning estimates (up to a factor of 5 more), so I think there's hope for improvement.