September 2014

The Galisteo Basin


Adam Vincent


The Galisteo Basin is one of New Mexico’s unheralded gems. The 730 square miles that stretch south of Santa Fe are rich with beautiful landscapes and archaeological treasures. It was home to some of the earliest settlements in New Mexico and is a crucial zone for the state’s wildlife. And it is under threat.


The basin’s biological importance cannot be underestimated. It has a varied geography that includes grasslands, forests, mesas, rolling hills, rocky escarpments, streams, small lakes and wetlands. Because it is sparsely populated and has expansive open space, the basin serves as an extremely important wildlife corridor from the Sandía Mountains all the way up to the Sangre de Cristos. Pronghorn, cougar, mule deer, black bear, fox and more thrive there.


But the area has been under threat for centuries. The Spanish overgrazed the area with sheep and cattle as early as the 1600s, leading to erosion and loss of habitat. The railroad has divided vital flood plains, diverting water and further increasing erosion.


In modern times, development is the biggest threat. According to a study by Earth Works Institute and the Santa Fe Conservation Trust (SFCT), development has mostly been concentrated at the perimeter of the watershed in sensitive high areas where drainage systems begin, triggering problems downstream. Additionally, increased development—and the subsequent roads, fences, paving and houses that come with it—fragment habitat, create barriers to migration and increase flooding and erosion.


But organizations like the SFCT and Commonweal Conservancy are working hard to protect the basin and preserve its status as a cultural and natural wonder in perpetuity.

SFCT has worked tirelessly to obtain 28 conservation easements in the basin. Many of these are on private land and protect sensitive ecological and archaeological sites.


The Galisteo Basin Preserve has opened up thousands of acres to the public with an innovative development that promotes responsible residential building. The preserve will protect approximately 13,000 acres, have 50 miles of trails and restore habitat when the project is completed. “This is a keystone project in the Galisteo Basin,” said SFCT Director Charlie O’Leary. “It protects key wildlife habitat and is a wonderful recreation resource for people.”


The Galisteo Basin is not only a biological treasure; its archaeological significance is massive, as well. The area was settled by Paleo Indian people around 7500 to 6000 B.C.E. By 1500 B.C.E., these people had transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to more of a farming-based existence, moving seasonally to take advantage of all nature had to offer. While the region was sparsely populated until this time, it was a trade route for turquoise, lead and other minerals that came from the area, especially the Cerrillos hills.


During a massive drought from 1100 to 1300 A.D. many Anasazi relocated to the area, establishing the modern Pueblo cultures. The largest settlement, which could have had as many as 1,000 residents, was on the present-day San Cristóbal Ranch, about 12 miles south of the Galisteo Basin Preserve. The ranch has had five different pueblos in its history: San Cristóbal, Pueblo Largo, Pueblo Colorado, Pueblo Shè and Colina Verde. The basin was also home to at least three other pueblos in the Pre-Colonial Period. At their peaks, the total population could have been as high as 15,000. But the heyday of these Pueblo societies did not last long. By the 1400s, they were under constant attack from Apache and Navajo tribes, and soon the Spanish would come in search of gold. The harsh rule and disease they brought decimated the local populations.


It didn’t take long for the Spanish to start ranching the land with sheep and cattle and mining for silver in Cerrillos. By the 1820s, the Santa Fe Trail was opened and gold was found in the Ortiz Mountains.


With the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mexico lost massive amounts of territory. New Mexico became a U.S. territory and Anglos began settling the area. The railroad came to the Galisteo Basin in 1880 with the establishment of Lamy, which boomed for 50 years. Cerrillos and Madrid were thriving mining towns during this time, too.


Several organizations and agencies are currently working to preserve and restore this invaluable area:


The Galisteo Basin Sites Protection Act Committee is working on the hundreds of critical archaeological sites.

Santa Fe Conservation Trust works with landowners to create conservation easements in the basin and northern New Mexico.

Commonweal Conservancy is working on the 13,000-acre conservation development in the Galisteo Basin Preserve.

The Bureau of Land Management is a major, federal land manager in the basin.

Santa Fe County is a major county land manager in the basin.


Additionally, there are groups working to protect resources like La Bajada Mesa from mining, protect Lamy from becoming a major oil depot, and oppose a gold-mining permit in the Ortiz Mountains.



Adam Vincent is a writer, editor, cyclist and family man based in Santa Fe.



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