Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories

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Dale and Sylvia Ball

Dale and
Sylvia Ball


Honored October, 1999

Dale and Sylvia Ball

As owners of a local bank in the 1980s, Dale and Sylvia Ball immersed themselves in Santa Fe. They served on the boards of the Santa Fe Opera, the Orchestra of Santa Fe, the Chamber Music Festival, the Santa Fe Community Foundation and other organizations.

They were instrumental in establishing the Girard Wing at the Museum of International Folk Art. They started a “computers in the schools” program. They first brought storyteller Joe Hayes to spin his wondrous tales at the tepee outside the Wheelwright Museum, beginning a tradition that has continued for decades.

But only after selling the bank, moving away and then returning in the 1990s did they undertake their most monumental project: the Santa Fe Conservation Trust.

Restless in retirement, Dale and Sylvia were approached by a group exploring the feasibility of establishing a local land trust. They knew little about such things, but after studying the concept, they got involved. When the Santa Fe Conservation Trust began in 1993, Dale was its president and executive director, and Sylvia was its administrator. Working from their spare bedroom, they published a newsletter and recruited members.

 The idea behind the trust was strong and simple: that the most sure way to preserve priceless portions of the magnificent open spaces that abound in the Santa Fe area was to secure permanent easements that would protect the land from development forever. And almost at once the young trust was faced by an urgent and overwhelming challenge.

A famous movie actress announced plans to build a mansion high upon the 9,121-foot Atalaya Mountain, the tallest peak looking down upon Santa Fe from the east, and a developer blasted out a roadway to provide access to property he owned in the same area. Until then, most residents had assumed the land was part of the Santa Fe National Forest.

Faced with the prospect of another splendid vista marred by ridgetop mansions and scattered subdivisions, a coalition of environmentalists, politicians, hikers, bikers and American Indians coalesced to fight for Atalaya in its pristine form. Leading the effort was the Santa Fe Conservation Trust. After lengthy negotiations, a settlement involving five landowners, two local governments, two federal agencies and the city/county extraterritorial zoning authority saved Atalaya--and even the road scar healed over.

When the Balls stepped down from the trust in 1999, almost 30 easements had preserved 18,112 acres--a total greater than similar land trusts in Texas and Arizona combined. Arrangements were in place for more than a dozen miles of a Rail Trail paralleling the train tracks running from downtown Santa Fe to the village of Lamy. Key segments of the historic Old Santa Fe Trail had been protected. Plans for trails near the new bypass Highway 599 were being laid. And a City Wilderness Area was under study.

Though no longer leading the Conservation Trust, Dale and Sylvia still had another astonishing contribution to make. Within the vision and know-how they had gained at the trust, they wanted to provide easy, non-erosive access for hikers and mountain bikers through the marvelous hills, valleys, forests and canyons lying between the city of Santa Fe and the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east.

Working with experts from the National Park Service, Dale and Sylvia began piecing together what was to become the Dale Ball Foothills Trails System. Little by little over a four-year period, the project created more than 20 miles of new established trails. Interconnecting with other new or old trails, the total network now exceeds 30 miles.

“I had a dream that Santa Fe would become a hiking center,” Dale reflected with satisfaction in his 80th year. “What else is an old man with a lot of energy to do?”

Story by Richard McCord

Photo © 1999 Steve Northrup