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On May 16, 2013, a bill sponsored by senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich to designate two wilderness areas in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, cleared the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. View video of Heinrich urging the committee to establish wilderness areas in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument.
The Rio Grande del Norte has shaped the lives of the people who have lived and visited the area for so many generations. This natural area is a national treasure that deserves to be recognized as part of our National Landscape Conservation System managed by the Bureau of Land Management. This area is now part of a 27 million acre collection of lands in 887 federally recognized areas considered to be the crown jewels of the American west.
Since 2007, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has been working on permanent protection of Rio Grande del Norte. In December 2012, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar came to a public meeting in Taos to discuss permanent protection for Rio Grande del Norte, and public support was overwhelming. (View a full list of supporters here.) As a way to reaffirm their commitment to the protection of Rio Grande del Norte, Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Representative Luján in February 2013 reintroduced a bill to establish the Río Grande del Norte National Conservation Area to protect 235,980 acres of BLM-managed lands in Taos and Rio Arriba Counties. On March 25, 2013, President Obama used the authorities granted to him under the Antiquities Act to create Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
The Rio Grande del Norte encompasses some of the most spectacular lands in all of New Mexico. The Rio Grande cuts into the Servilleta lava flows that make up the Taos Plateau just above the Colorado border. Eight miles later, at the New Mexico state line, the river is 200 feet down, the gorge 150 feet across. West of Questa, where Big Arsenic Spring bubbles from the rock and pinyon jays heap in the winter, the river is a glinting green ribbon eight hundred feet down. The opposite rim is over half a mile away where, on summer mornings, bald eagles soar southward in pairs. At John Dunn Bridge the river enters The Box, an 18-mile stretch of 900 foot cliffs, famous among rafters and boaters.
This is also the Rio Grande Migratory Flyway – one of the great migratory routes in the world. Eagles, falcons and hawks make the basalt walls of the Gorge their nesting homes. Ospreys, scaups, hummingbirds, herons, avocets, merlins and willits all traverse the Gorge. The sound of Sandhill Cranes migrating from the San Luis Valley to places like Bosque Del Apache can be deafening while on an October hike in the tablelands west of the river. It’s that western plateau that is perhaps the most wild. From the edge of the Gorge, vast grass and sagebrush mesas intersperse with the forested slopes of volcanic intrusions such as Cerro Chiflo, Cerro del Aire, Montosos and Cerro de la Olla. It is on these mesas where vast herds of pronghorn and elk find winter forage and calve and fawn along the rim late in the spring.
This substantial chunk of wild is bounded by the Gorge Rim on the east and Highway 285 on the west. The northern portion spills over 285, encompassing the broad, gently rolling grass and sage brush plains of the Rio San Antonio Gorge WSA, bisected by yet another gorge where raptors nest in 200-foot high lava walls and conifers clamber down to the Rio los Pinos. Perhaps the crown jewel of this whole area is Ute Mountain, a 10,093 foot high volcanic cone rising nearly 3,000 feet above the surrounding plain. Ute is something you can’t miss. Located about ten miles west of Costilla, it is the dominant feature for those driving north from Taos along highway 522. The steep slopes of Ute are covered in pinyon at the base, as well as pockets of ponderosa, aspen, white pine and Douglas Fir in the higher elevations. From grassy meadows of blue grama, western wheatgrass and Indian ricegrass where the trees thin, the Gorge is a jagged, inky slash dividing Ute from its sister cones to the west. Snow-capped Blanca rises to the north, just across the state line. The whole Sangre de Cristo range falls to the east, terminating, view-wise, at Wheeler Peak.
Descendants of the land grantees run cattle all along the Gorge and out into the table-lands between the rim and Highway 285. Vehicle routes tend towards sparse and are more likely than not unmaintained two-tracks. Hunting and fishing are common. Hikers climb to the bottom of the gorge for a swim and a picnic. The Box is a popular rafting area and bird watching draws – well, not as many as it ought to. It’s fabulous birding! On the slopes of Cerro de la Olla, locals collect firewood to heat their homes in the winter.
This is wild land, important to the culture and character of our county and vital, in its wildness, to our economy. We learned two main lessons during the battles over the Valle Vidal: one, no chunk of public land is secure from mineral development or other forms of exploitation – no matter how safe you may think that land is, no matter how ‘lacking’ in exploitative possibilities it may be, someone, sometime is going to come after that land. Our other lesson was this: our economy in north-central New Mexico is dependent on wilderness. Wilderness feeds the rivers that feed the acequias. It nurtures our rural lifestyle. Wilderness is the ‘bank’ from which we hunt and fish. It is also a tremendous economic development opportunity. Perhaps most importantly, these wildlands create and nurture the character of the people of Taos County. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the landscape. This is public land. Our land.
Timeline of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance’s involvement:
2007: NM Wild staff member Jim O’Donnell starts work on the Rio Grande del Norte campaign.
June 2007: Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signs letter of support for the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area.
2008: NM Wild Traditional Community Organizer John Olivas begins working on the campaign. Olivas quickly gains support of the Northern New Mexico land grant community, which all starts in the living room of Esther Garcia.*
June 2008: Land Grant of San Antonio del Rio Colorado signs a resolution of support.
April 2009: Senator Bingaman introduces El Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area legislation (co-sponsored by Senator Tom Udall)in the Senate on April 23, 2009,
May 2009: Taos and Mora Valley chambers of commerce sign resolutions of support. Taos County Commission passes resolution of support.
May 2010: Congressman Lujan introduces legislation for Rio Grande del Norte NCA and Wilderness (cosponsored by Representative Martin Heinrich) into the House of Representatives on May 18, 2010.
August 2010: NM Wild arranges for a LightHawk flyover of the proposal area with media members from the Santa Fe New Mexican, a freelance writer, a member of NM Wild’s WOCLP** program and a Santa Fe County Commissioner. An additional LightHawk flyover is conducted later that month and includes staff from Congressman Lujan and senators Bingaman and Udall, and Taos County elected officials.
March 2011: New legislation is introduced into the 112th Congress
May 2012: Taos County Commission passes an updated resolution of support.
June 2012: Santa Fe City Council and Taos Ski Valley Inc. pass resolutions of support.
December 2012: Rio Grande del Norte Grazing Permittees sign letter of support.
January 2013: Pueblo of Taos signs resolution of support.
February 2013: Senators Heinrich and Udall and Representative Luján reintroduced a bill to establish the Río Grande del Norte Conservation Area to protect more than 240,000 acres of BLM-managed lands in Taos and Rio Arriba Counties.
March 25, 2013: President Barack Obama designates Rio Grande del Norte National Monument by use of the Antiquities Act.
The only way that we can continue fighting for places like El Rio Grande del Norte is through continued financial support. Please consider giving to the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance today to help us continue our work for wilderness designation within Rio Grande del Norte. Your generous donation will help us fund legislative trips to Washington, outreach and education, and will help us fund our northern New Mexico staff member, who is working on the ground on this campaign.