While this year’s winter weather has brought much-needed snow, it’s also made it difficult for some New Mexicans to get to and from their homes. It’s highlighting a problem they’ve been trying to fix for years, that now has residents stuck between two government agencies.
The view from Andre Balyoz’s home is incredible, but for him and his neighbors, trying to make it home to enjoy the view is another story.
“When we bought the house here, we knew that it was on a dirt road,” Balyoz told KRQE News 13. “We didn’t know the complete story about the fact that it wasn’t maintained by anybody.”
Balyoz moved to Placitas off Tunnel Springs Road, also known as Forest Road 231, last year. He’s gotten to know his neighbors over the winter bonding over a common struggle: the path leading to their homes is nearly impassable some days.
“There were a couple days when my wife and I couldn’t get to work because we couldn’t get down the hill.”
GoPro video captured tires sliding in the mud when KRQE News 13’s news car couldn’t make it all the way up the hill.
Sandoval County Commissioner Katherine Bruch knows about the problem, as does former Commissioner Jim Holden-Rhodes, along with the U.S. Forest Service.
So why hasn’t anyone fixed it?
Blame winter weather, or wear and tear from the public driving up to the popular Forest Service trailhead at the top of Tunnel Springs. The road has deteriorated over the years.
Joe Fusco, who also lives off of Tunnel Springs, brought the problem to KRQE News 13’s attention in 2016.
“Is anyone gonna fix this road? It’d be nice to get just a straight-up answer,” Fusco said in a 2016 interview.
Fusco said the U.S. Forest Service used to maintain the road years ago. Now, Sandoval County only maintains the small portion of the road it owns.
Most of the drive on Tunnel Springs is riddled with U.S. Forest Service signs, so one would think the Forest Service would maintain the road—but it doesn’t.
Neighbors have tried
When Balyoz and his wife took matters into their own hands and tried to clear out large rocks from the road, two Forest Service rangers stopped them.
“They told us that what we were doing was violating federal law because this is a Forest Service road,” Balyoz recalled.
He said the rangers threatened to give them a citation and told him they’d had problems with people stealing rocks in the past. So Balyoz stopped working and put the rocks back.
“They said it would be a federal misdemeanor,” Balyoz told KRQE News 13. But Balyoz is left puzzled. Since his property line extends past the road, he and some of his neighbors own portions of the land that Tunnel Springs Road sits on.
Yet, the U.S. Forest Service won’t allow homeowners to do their own maintenance work on the road.
Donna Nemeth is with the Forest Service Public Affairs Office.
When KRQE News 13 asked Nemeth why the Forest Service wouldn’t allow homeowners to do their own maintenance, she replied, “That goes back to the confusion that has existed for the last few years about whose responsibility it is.”
Today, she said it is the responsibility of the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the road. She later explained via email that the Forest Service was finally able to have specialists obtain and review the appropriate historical documentation to clear things up. What specific historical documents the agency is referring to is unclear.
“We confirmed recently that in the early 1900s it was designated as a Forest Service Road,” Nemeth said. This means the Forest Service owns a right of way to the road, she added.
According to its records now, Nemeth said road maintenance for Tunnel Springs does indeed fall on the Forest Service. Still, no maintenance is being done.
“That issue should be resolved soon,” Nemeth assured.
When KRQE News 13 asked Sandoval County if it can help residents improve the condition of the road, Commissioner Bruch answered, “I think we can. I know that we can’t help them today, which is very frustrating.”
Bruch said Tunnel Springs is designated as a ‘level two’ road, meaning the Forest Service only maintains it for use by high clearance vehicles, not normal passenger cars.
In December, residents met with Sandoval County and representatives from the U.S. Forest Service to discuss the problem. After the meeting, the U.S. Forest Service granted permission for Sandoval County to perform a one-time grading of the road. However, that did not happen.
In January, the county sent its Fire Chief up the road to see if emergency vehicles could make the drive up. He claims they can, so the county determined grading wasn’t necessary.
“In an emergency, we have vehicles that can get there and if we need to clear a road because of an emergency, we will do it,” Bruch assured. “No one will be at risk.”
“Does that give you peace of mind?” KRQE News 13’s Gabrielle Burkhart asked Balyoz.
“Not at all,” Balyoz replied. “It makes us very nervous that if there was a medical emergency up here with one of the residents, that an ambulance might not be able to make it up here.”
Bruch said anyone, including the county, needs written permission from the U.S. Forest Service to perform maintenance on Tunnel Springs. With the recent government shutdown, neighbors were once again stonewalled.
“Maybe the residents haven’t screamed and yelled enough,” former Commissioner Holden-Rhodes told News 13. “These folks have been asking for 20 years–not for paving, just make it passable.”
Nemeth said so far, no resident has sought a permit or maintenance agreement from the U.S. Forest Service.
End of the road?
“We understand that it’s been frustrating and we share that frustration,” Nemeth said. “But we are happy to have reached a point where we can resolve the issue.”
Today, Nemeth said the U.S. Forest Service finally sent over a cooperative agreement to Sandoval County, which would allow the county to be reimbursed by the Forest Service for maintenance work.
Homeowners like Balyoz and Fusco will believe it when they see it.
The maintenance agreement still has to go before county commissioners, but it’s unclear when that will happen since the terms are still being negotiated.
Wednesday afternoon, Sandoval County sent the following updated statement:
Sandoval County takes the concerns of the residents who live along Tunnel Springs Road seriously, and wants to work to help facilitate a resolution. Therefore, County leadership is planning to reach out directly to the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C. next week, as Commission Chairman David Heil and Commissioner Katherine Bruch travel to meet with government leaders on several topics and projects. They will work to help facilitate an agreement or understanding between the residents on Tunnel Springs Road and the U.S. Forest Service, so that they can reach a resolution together.