El Malpais
In the Land of Frozen Fires: A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country
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Chapter IX:

Because of the deteriorated condition of Highway 53, Moore requested the National Park Service to exert any influence it had with the State in obtaining either a graveled or oiled surface highway in front of his business. This he added would make the area attractive for tourists. [19] The National Park Service responded that it was impossible "to take any definite hand in the improving of the approach road" to his property although the Service would encourage the State to do so because of the upcoming Coronado Quadrennial. [20] Moore remained in control of the ice caves for less than four years. Following the death of Sylvestre Mirabal in 1939, the caves remained in the Mirabal family but were still leased to Moore. Eventually, ownership of the caves passed to Mirabal's daughter, Prudenciana Mirabal Candelaria. The Candelarias, Prudenciana and Manuel Antonio, operated the Ice Caves sporadically during World War II, primarily in a caretaker status. For a while, it evolved into a cowboy camp. [21] In 1946, the Candelarias' son, David, was encouraged to manage the ice caves. Under the management of David Candelaria and his wife Cora, the ice caves prospered and grew into a full-time operation. They added more cabins and removed the campground to avoid competition with El Morro's campground.

While the Candelarias improved their facilities, they strived to preserve the unique geological features of the area. [22] The Candelarias waged endless battles with local and State bureaucracies to modernize the ice caves and the region. Through their efforts and others like them, they succeeded in bringing electricity to the Zuni Mountain settlements in 1955. In 1966, State Highway 53 from Grants to the ice caves was paved. This seemingly insignificant act prompted more vacationers to detour from U.S. 66 and partially constructed Interstate 40 to visit the ice caves. [23]

road in El Malpais Country in 1920s
Figure 12. Until the paving of Route 66 in the 1930s, travel in El Malpais Country could be an adventure.
Pot holes, loose livestock, and axle-deep mud were common encounters.
Photograph taken by W.T. Lee about 1920 near Laguna, New Mexico. U.S. Geological Survey, Photographic Library, Denver, CO.

While the ice caves flourished under the capable leadership of the Candelarias, another tourist facility emerged on the east side of the malpais. Local ranchers spearheaded by Mark and Ina Elkins and their close friend, Artie Bibo, envisioned the establishment of the Kowina Foundation. The goal of the Kowina Foundation was to honor the western pioneers and the rich, proud heritage of the Acoma Indians. Artie Bibo donated land for the site, and the Elkins gave charitably of their finances to erect the structure on top of Cebolleta Mesa. Dedicated May 9, 1970, the facility contained a collection of artifacts devoted to the pioneers and the area and gave visitors an opportunity to examine the extensive Indian pueblo ruins on top of the mesa. Considering publicity of the site scarcely advanced beyond the local papers, attendance remained low. Because of the death of Mr. Bibo and the failing health of Mark Elkins, the facility and all its contents were sold about 1980 to the Acoma Indians. [24]

During the period of the Bibos and Elkins project, the National Park Service renewed its interest in the malpais. In 1969, El Malpais as it was now termed, became eligible for natural landmark status by action of the Secretary of the Interior. The National Park Service submitted "A Study of Alternatives--El Malpais" and released in 1970 and 1971 its preliminary findings. The study offered two alternatives: one, that the area continue to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management as an Outstanding Natural Area; second, that the National Park Service manage the area as a national monument. The National Park Service now deemed El Malpais' resources of "high enough quality to be considered for inclusion in the National Park System." But the report also expressed an opinion that management responsibilities could probably be best accomplished through the Bureau of Land Management, whose jurisdiction and longstanding relationship with the malpais and its inhabitants was firmly cemented. [25] State Bureau of Land Management officers concurred with the findings and reiterated the Bureau's position, "that protection, preservation, and management of the Malpais area can be accomplished under the Classification and Multiple Use Act of September 19, 1964." [26]

The biggest obstacle to the creation of a national monument remained the status of the ice caves and Bandera Crater. The National Park Study cited that a national monument could only succeed via the inclusion of the ice caves and Bandera Crater as a nucleus of the park proposal. "To try to establish a national monument without these land resources severely undermines the suitability argument upon which the National Park Service proposal is based. The superlative interpretive story which could be told about the vivid volcanic history of El Malpais is incomplete with the elimination of these classical volcanic illustrations from that story," the study concluded. [27] The Candelarias, indeed, did not desire to sell their beloved caves, craters, and lava beds. They pondered the future of their children. Perhaps their offspring might want to manage the operations. Moreover, while the debate about making the area a national monument raged, officials neglected to include the Candelarias in some of the discussions. On May 8, 1973, New Mexico Congressman, Harold Runnells introduced House Rules 7607, a bill to establish El Malpais-Grants New Mexico. That bill succumbed because of the influence of the Candelarias who adamantly refused to sell their property. [28]

Bandera Crater
Figure 13. Bandera Crater, view taken by W.T. Lee about 1920.
Credit U.S. Geological Survey. Photographic Library, Denver, Co.

Meanwhile, the State expressed interest in creating a state park in the malpais. That idea foundered when the New Mexico legislature rejected the state park proposal in May 1973. Instead, the State supported a plan whereby El Malpais would be managed as a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) outstanding natural area with natural landmark status. But nothing came of the proposal. [29]

Still Grants citizens clamored for an El Malpais National Monument. Another decade passed. Finally, with the Candelaria children now grown and not expressing a desire to manage the commercial caves, the Candelarias agreed to sell their holdings in 1986 to the National Park Service. Public Law 100-225 signed on December 31, 1987, officially created El Malpais National Monument.

Officials in Grants perceive the national monument as the cornerstone in the town's attempt to create a new economy based on tourism. As Grants enters the 1990s, the community is embarking on an ambitious plan to get motorists from I-40 to stop and visit the nearby attractions. The economic history of Grants is a cycle of boom and bust. One hundred years ago the railroad brought opportunity to the lava country. Timber followed sheep and cattle. But they too, failed. Large scale carrot growing operations flourished for two decades before failing. In the mid 1950s uranium ushered in another wave of economic prosperity until its demise in the 1980s. In the 1990s Grants looks towards tourism as its next economic lifeline. Only time will tell whether tourism is a panacea or merely a stop gap in the perpetual up and down economic cycle that has been a hallmark of the history of el malpais. Given the prior human history, it seems fairly certain that the Indians, Hispanics, and Anglos of El Malpais region can and will adjust to socio-economic fluctuations.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2001