TAOS, N.M. -- In the 30 years since she moved here from New York City, art dealer Rena Rosequist has watched this scenic mountain village change from a sleepy artists' colony into a tony tourist mecca and international ski resort.

But through it all, Taos has clung to much of what drew her here. Hispanic farmers still tend vegetables and sheep on land settled by their forebears three centuries ago, while the terraced adobe structures of the Taos Pueblo Indians remain among the oldest continuously inhabited human dwellings in existence.

In part, residents credit their unique way of life to their isolation. Because the town's tiny airport cannot accommodate commercial jets, visitors generally fly into Albuquerque, then drive for three hours over twisting mountain roads.

"It's still the same feisty little village it always was," Rosequist said, looking up from a crossword puzzle in her light-filled gallery. "It's definitely not Santa Fe yet."

But some worry that it soon could be. Eager to bolster a tourist economy in a county whose 18 percent unemployment rate is among the nation's highest, town officials are to begin work this spring on a new, 8,600-foot runway, long enough for Boeing 737s and other medium-sized jets.

While the New Mexico congressional delegation and a large segment of the business community back the project, it alarms many people here. Local activists have sued to block the expansion, charging that town officials did not consider adequately its effects on traditional cultures and the environmentally sensitive Rio Grande Gorge, among other things.

Whatever the outcome, the suit has exposed a deep rift between the tourist industry and those who fear the "Aspenization" of their bucolic community.

"Aspen {Colo.} doesn't have a Taos Pueblo," said Alfred Trujillo, a quiet vegetable farmer in the north end of Taos Valley. "Jackson Hole {Wyo.} doesn't have a longtime Spanish population. They want to compete at any cost. We're different."

Town officials say the new runway will improve safety, cause a minimal increase in air traffic and is vital to the local economy. "Tourism is all that we have," said Ken Blair, chairman of the Taos Airport Commission and owner of three area hotels. "There's a group of people that are strictly no-growth, and the airport to them represents growth. {But} Taos is going to grow."

It is easy to see why. Flanked by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the ragged fault line of the Rio Grande Gorge, Taos is as rich in beauty as in history. The town dates to 1615 and remains an appealing jumble of adobe houses and muddy streets. In the surrounding valley, ponies graze in stubbled pastures, and gnarled cottonwoods overhang the creeks and acequias, or irrigation ditches.

Over the years, the valley's dry climate, breathtaking scenery and mosaic of cultures have lured a procession of artists and writers, among them D.H. Lawrence, whose ashes are kept here. More recently, skiers from around the world have discovered the daunting slopes and fluffy powder of Taos Ski Valley, which opened in 1955.

Evidence of the tourist boom is everywhere, from Mercedes-Benz and BMW cars in the narrow streets to the crowded bar at the historic Taos Inn. Art galleries and shops selling T-shirts and Native American curios surround the main plaza and, at last count, visitors could choose among 50 bed-and-breakfasts.

But in some respects, the prosperity is illusory. The non-profit Taos County Economic Development Corporation reported recently that 60 percent of Native American households and 31 percent of Hispanic households live below the poverty line, compared with 13 percent of Anglo households.

Local officials have used such statistics to help secure $8 million in federal funds toward the planned $10.5 million runway, which they say will allow Taos to compete with other resorts offering jet service. "Taos has become more difficult to get to, relative to other resorts," said Mickey Blake, owner of Taos Ski Valley.

For some residents, however, remoteness is more an asset than a liability. Already, some say, Taos Valley is paying the price of unchecked growth -- traffic jams, fast-food restaurants, air pollution fed by an ever-expanding number of wood stoves. The average price of a home here jumped 30 percent from 1988 to 1989.

Some caution that tourism is not necessarily an economic savior. While they take no position on the airport, for example, officials of the development corporation note that most tourist-industry jobs are relatively menial and low-paying and that many of them are seasonal.

"We don't bash tourism, but we don't concentrate on it," said co-director Terrie Bad-Hand. "Typically, the people that come here and do well with tourism come from California. They have money and training. We want the local people to benefit as well as the newcomers."

Native Americans of the Taos Pueblo take a similarly ambivalent view of the tourist industry. While "pull-tab" bingo and fees charged to visiting tourists generate a substantial portion of their income, they are skeptical about tourism's overall benefits.

"Indians . . . may be dishwashers in the back, but they're not visible," said Richard Deertrack of the Pueblo war chief's office. "It affects our young people. It affects their image of who they are."

In November, the Pueblo formally opposed the new runway, charging that it would contribute to such overflights of their land as the one in August where a private plane buzzed a secret religious ceremony. "There's something that's more valuable than tourism, and that's our way of life," Deertrack said.

Blair, the airport commissioner and hotelier, says that he does not expect more than two new charter flights a day and that those will be routed well away from Indian land. He has little patience with his opponents.

"I'm accused of being the only one who's going to benefit from the airport," said Blair, 61, a Boston transplant who moved here 18 years ago after selling a chain of beauty shops. "I'm going to benefit from being a hard-working businessman in a community that people want to come to. Don't tell me I'm not allowed to make money."