Rio Grande Bridge Vendors: Endangered Species
Get Rid of the Vendors or We’ll Close the Bridge!
On Dec. 30, four or five independent vendors welcomed visitors to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge at the northwest approach to the famed Taos attraction on the “other” side of the Rio Grande. Despite temporary signs erected by the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) that forbid vending, the occupiers have taken charge of a tiny corner, protected by orange plastic construction columns. Vendors smiled at tourists and sold items from makeshift booths–jewelry, beverages, and curios.
Recently, NMDOT erected cement barricades on the east side of the bridge, on both sides of the highway, eliminating parking, picnicking, and vending—a practice allowed by custom since the opening of the bridge back in the mid 60s. The larger east side access area includes an area designated for parking and picnicking according to the survey and plat for the historic right of way granted to the state for $150 per acre back in 1963. Now visitors are forced to Parallel Park on the west side of the bridge, raising safety concerns.
Monuments and markers that detail the historic significance of the bridge and the Rio Grande are off limits today. The state contractor and his workers, who have been allegedly doing repairs, have been idle for weeks but only one lane is open– even as the Christmas season brings out more visitors. The numbers of vendors and visitors have significantly dropped since NMDOT acquiesced to Taos Pueblo demands to rid the area of rabble.
In previous stories, Taos Friction has focused on WarChief Edwin Concha, aka “The Man Who Killed the Cow,” as the mean-spirited Grinch in this 21st Century Culture Conflict. But, we owe Edwin an apology. He may be the public face of Taos Pueblo but he has the full support not only of Tribal Government, both traditional and secular powers, but also, according to documents received from NMDOT, the State of New Mexico and the U.S. Department of Interior. The Taos Tribal Council Resolution, No. 27, raising the issue against vendors, is dated Oct. 27, 2011: WarChief Concha, Gov. Cordova, Councilman Marcus, Cacique Martinez, and other members of the governing body have signed off on the document.
The Taos Tribe has thrown its political, legal, and financial muscle behind this effort to kill a fly with a shotgun. According to a Nov. 1, 2011 letter from the U.S. Department of Interior, (BIA Southwest Region) addressed to Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, the federal government, at the tribe’s urging, threatened to rescind a right of way granted to the state back in 1963 for the cost of $150 per acre because “the State’s allowance of vending on the ROW [Right of Way] is not within the stated scope of the ROW.” Further the letter states, “The failure to comply with any term or condition of the grant or the applicable regulations would constitute grounds for the BIA to terminate the ROW.”
The letter refers to notices from the NMDOT general counsel Daniel C. Opperman, meetings with the Governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Cangliosi, and Cabinet Secretary for Department of Public Safety Gordon Eden. Subsequently, a meeting ensued with Taos Pueblo governing body, BIA, and NMDOT Cabinet Secretary Alvin C. Dominguez, according to documents.
Certainly, the Vendors have become a “worthy opponent” in this Homeric agon. No more Kit Carson, no more Padre Martinez, no more Senator Clinton Anderson, no more pesky parcientes from El Prado. Now Taos Pueblo can fight these pesky vendors.
Sec. Dominguez of NMDOT wrote a letter on Nov. 29, 2011,to the War Chief, referring to the “illegal activities” regarding parking, safety, protecting scenic beauty, and the “growing population of the big horn sheep.” NMDOT agreed to “scarify the topsoil and/or gravel the surface,” and “begin hauling concrete barriers to the site.” The Secretary’s paradoxical letter suggests engineering solutions “will be designed to improve safety to motorists and pedestrians in the area by preventing and deterring as much as reasonably possible the illegal vending and parking activities.”
Despite his references to “illegal activities,” the Secretary’s letter states “NMDOT has no criminal law enforcement authority, and thus cannot issue criminal citations or prosecute such cases in courts.” NMDOT’s administrative code forbids vending but is seen as an arbitrary and capricious “policy,” variously enforced statewide, if at all, but not a duly passed legislative law.
Contrary to claims about public safety, NMDOT has endangered not only vendors but also motorists or pedestrians with the implementation of barriers and one-way driving lanes at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Even impromptu suicide victims are avoiding the area, saying there’s no place to park quick and jump.
The legal claims by Taos Pueblo, the BIA, and the State raise interesting issues about the original contract for the 1963 ROW. The agreement is silent on the issue of highway vending. The long time custom in New Mexico is neither forbidden nor allowed in the document. Taos Pueblo Tribal members used to sell goods at the Gorge until unilaterally prohibited by the governor’s office a decade ago. Still, on occasion, a Tribal member joins the multicultural vendors.
Terms like lease and easement are thrown around in the press and in the letters among the parties about this matter but the original letters and resolutions specifically refer only to the term “grant” of “right of way,” which ROW was duly purchased.
While the Tribe, NMDOT, and the BIA claim vendors and visitors allow trash to accumulate, none of the concerned entities have thought to install trash cans or a chain link fence in fifty years—despite the increasing numbers of tourists (due to promotion by Taos Pueblo, the Town of Taos, and the State of New Mexico). Vendors say the WarChief forbid them to go on Tribal land to pick-up forty or fifty year’s worth of trash when they offered.
At the state rest area for the BIA west rim trailhead, only a hundred yards from the west side of the Bridge, the NM park service maintains pristine restrooms, picnic areas, and parking for visitors and locals.
Last summer, I watched Vendors police the area and arrange parking for themselves and visitors in an orderly and safe fashion. Despite claims by the Tribe, the Big Horn Sheep are flourishing. Count them! They are not an endangered species–like the Vendors. I have never seen anyone feeding wild sheep. They stay far away from human beings—unlike domestic cows, which can be easily approached and shot dead by an armed WarChief.
Unlike the well-paid government workers at NMDOT, NMDPS, the Dept. of Interior and BIA, or Taos Pueblo, the Vendors work outside and keep the American entrepreneurialism alive. Gov. Nelson Cordova and WarChief Edwin Concha will have left office after only one year today. Tomorrow the new tribal government will inherit a migraine and a black mark in the public relations column.
Despite the rain, snow, freezing temperatures, or sunshine and wind, these vendors will survive and flourish—just like the Bighorn Sheep. On Tuesday, Jan. 3, the Taos County Commission will hold an information session with a NMDOT engineer regarding the issue. Just as Mr. Concha is the public face of the Taos Tribe so Commissioner St. Nick Jaramillo of Taos County has become the public defender of free enterprise, the downtrodden, and the American Way. The Vendors urge other vendors and interested parties to attend the morning session at the new Complex Tuesday morning.