Toner Mitchell is the New Mexico Water and Habitat Program Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of freshwater streams, rivers, and habitat for trout, salmon, other aquatic species—and people. A New Mexico native, fishing guide, and passionate outdoorsman, Toner has spent several years lending support to the Village of Questa, located in the northern reach of the state, to revitalize both its section of the Red River and its economy. He also writes a column about fishing, recreation and environmental restoration for the monthly Questa Del Rio News.
When I started working with Trout Unlimited, I thought I was going to be fixing streams and helping ensure that more trout are living in them. I realized pretty quickly that this can’t happen without a solid community behind the work. That’s what I admire about this little town—a common vision to steward the environment, which in turn brings visitors to experience the area through hiking, camping, hunting, biking, skiing, and of course, fishing.
The real effort in Questa started when the molybdenum mine announced its closing in 2014. For about 100 years, Questa depended on the mine, but that created a one-dimensional economy. When they saw the change coming, they didn’t flinch and they didn’t give up. They got projects going, they formed relationships to help with revitalization.
The closure triggered funding to support the cleanup of some degraded stretches of the Red River and to help with economic development to replace lost jobs. The Red River runs through the Village and is a point of local pride, as is nearby Eagle Rock Lake. That project won a Greenovation Award from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Questa doesn’t look at their rivers and lakes just as just a place for camping and good fishing, they actually offer some of the best fishing in the state. The Village of Questa and the Questa Economic Development Fund consider their beautiful, pristine natural environment as an asset that everybody should know about. They began to structure their economy around the outdoors, including the small businesses that support it like outfitters, coffee shops, hardware, restaurants, and artists.
I remember as a kid growing up in New Mexico, you could drive anywhere to fish for Río Grande Cutthroat Trout, which is the state fish. Now, they are being edged out by non-native brown trout. So you have to put on a backpack and hike to find them. But restoring the Cutthroat to their native waters also means reintroducing them to the people who live in their habitat and fish for them.
Questa has taken the lead in reintroducing people to the Cutthroat Trout and fishing. It’s a unifying point for the Village. It rallies around the annual Río Grande Cutthroat Trout Restocking Festival at the Wild Rivers Recreation Area. People pick up a bag of fingerlings and hike them down to the river. The last event brought in hundreds of people, and not just from New Mexico, to drop in about 10,000 fish. Trout Unlimited also helps with the Annual Questa Fishing Derby that offers prizes. It’s a lot of fun and celebrates what a great pastime fishing can be.
Part of what makes Questa so special didn’t really hit me until we made a film about the town and what they’ve been doing. I like that the Village is fighting to get people up there and not just pass through on their way to somewhere else. I don’t take those relationships for granted and want to make sure Questa’s big efforts endure. That’s why Questa is worth visiting for anyone wanting to experience the beauty of New Mexico’s outdoors.