By Leslie Linthicum / Albuquerque Journal
Apr 14, 2013
UTE MOUNTAIN — The focal point of the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is, fittingly, the Rio Grande.
The deep river gorge, a 600-foot jagged chasm, cuts the length of the new monument and provides opportunities for rafting, kayaking, fishing, biking, camping and hiking while offering sightseers some of the state’s most dramatic views.
But the river canyon is just a sliver of the huge new monument, which stretches nearly 30 miles across at its widest point and from Pilar all the way north to the Colorado border. It encompasses more than 242,000 acres (by comparison, Bandelier National Monument spans about 33,000 acres), and much of that land is raw, remote and generally untraveled, a flat expanse of sagebrush and grass dotted by volcanic cones that push up from the high desert floor.
It’s wildland, so devoid of roads and trails and water and so open to the wind and the sun that it feels like a challenge to enter it and spend some time. I took a look at the new Rio Grande del Norte monument last week from atop one of its most notable geographical features — Ute Mountain, the monument’s high point, which sits like a green dome a few miles shy of the Colorado border.
Ute Mountain, an extinct volcano, dominates the landscape on the Taos Plateau. Its summit is the highest point in the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. (GREG SORBER/JOURNAL)
Ute Mountain is a perfect example of all that is wonderful about the new national monument and all that is a challenge. With a rise of 2,500 feet, the former volcano lies like a sleeping giant in the midst of sage flats and grain fields. It manages to dominate the landscape and cry out “Climb me!” even though it is dwarfed by the higher, showier massifs of the nearby Sangre de Cristos.
Getting to the base of the mountain is a seat-of-the-pants effort on dirt roads and a hike to the top involves following well-used elk trails — and encountering many of the elk that made them. It’s a steep bushwhack through ponderosa, aspen and Douglas fir to the summit at 10,093 feet, which is marked by a rock cairn and a rusted tin can hung on a juniper pole. The peanut butter jar that holds the summit log shows that my husband and I are the first to have made the summit in the past six months.
The view from the top is its own reward. Clusters of white peaks dominate the distance on the north side: Costilla, Culebra, Blanca, Crestone. On the south side, the new national monument stretches out in tawny expanse interrupted only by the round mounds of Ute Mountain’s sister cones and the jagged scar of the river gorge.
Efforts to preserve this large, undeveloped chunk of northern New Mexico have been under way for years, and in March the president bypassed efforts in Congress and signed a presidential order creating the national monument designation under the Antiquities Act.
The designation provides protections for the land but doesn’t prevent trail building, roadwork or other “improvements.” The Bureau of Land Management has three years to complete a management plan for the area, and Sam DesGeorges, the BLM’s Taos-area director, said the bureau’s default position will be to leave it alone.
“You don’t want to pave paradise,” he said. “A great majority of the monument will remain the way it is.”
Nevertheless, DesGeorges said he anticipates a bump in visitors. A recent study of how tourists use the area estimated that 325,000 people visit each year and spend about $19 million. The study estimated that a national monument designation might nearly double those numbers.
But DesGeorges said most of those new visitors would be attracted to the river corridor, where a good 80 percent of the monument’s activity occurs.
As to the great expanse west of the river, the land of volcanic cones and great wide-open? He said he doesn’t anticipate creating or improving dirt roads there or building trails, opting instead to develop interpretive material that explains its history of paleolithic mammoth hunting and preserve its wildness for the more adventurous visitors who are willing to rough it to spend time in stark solitude.
Many pieces of wilderness have been made accessible and then overrun by people who inadvertently love it to death. The Rio Grande del Norte is a perfect place for a different management approach: Love it and leave it alone.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org.