Protecting our sacred lands

Garrett VanKlessenDespite strong local support for protection of this area, the proposed Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act is moving through Congress slowly. Garrett VeneKlasen with Trout Unlimited, talks about the need to push for the protection of our most cherished public lands for the benefit of our children and grandchildren. From the Albuquerque Journal (March 17, 2012):

Everyone has a story and everyone has history. Tragically, most of us have lost or somehow forgotten important pieces of our story in the passing of generations. Some have a name for this – they call it “progress.”

New Mexico is one of the few states in our union that has a complete historical and cultural record with unbroken ties back to the origin of its traditional, land-based cultures. This epic tale – which is steeped in diversity, tradition and heritage – starts something like this:

In the beginning there was nothing but an endless expanse of wild and pristine country completely devoid of humans. Then perhaps 13,000 years ago, a small band of Paleoamericans, the Llano Culture, appeared in our story. And so began the rich cultural history of man upon the wild New Mexican landscape. Over time, the pueblos evolved, followed by Francisco Coronado and his fellow conquistadors, who first explored the Rio Grande Valley in 1540. Like the tribal peoples who came before them, the Spanish settlers who followed and remained upon the untamed land were soon irrevocably transformed by it.

New Mexico’s historical record is a sacred text that begins with one word – wilderness! Our state’s remaining wild places are irreplaceable, iconic cultural heirlooms. Wilderness is the genesis of New Mexico’s story. It is the first sentence in the first chapter of our epic tale; it is undeniably the sacred cornerstone of New Mexican culture. And these last vestiges of New Mexico’s wild lands must be preserved, honored and protected.

Of these sacred lands, I cannot think of two more worthy of protective designation than the Columbine Hondo and El Rio Grande del Norte, both in the northern part of our state. The Columbine Hondo is only 46,000 acres of rugged, critically important alpine headwater terrain in the Carson National Forest. The Rio Grande del Norte corridor, comprising approximately 236,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands, is the very heart and soul of northern New Mexico’s traditional cultural agrarian epicenter.

The focal antihero in this saga is time. Time is running out for our wild lands. Some members of Congress would love to see these currently unprotected lands either sold off to private hands or developed in the name of “prosperity and progress.”

As we speak, there are a host of bills in Congress cleverly designed to pillage the last pockets of unspoiled backcountry. If they pass, the beginning of New Mexico’s epic tale could someday soon be replaced with Chinese pulp mills, exclusive “ranchette” subdivisions, strip mines and clear cuts. Considering the political agenda of an increasingly ideologue-led Congress, the reality of this is much more plausible than one might think.

Just 472 years ago, nearly the entire landscape of New Mexico was wild and untamed. Back then, our Native peoples and Spanish settlers were peoples of the land. These cultures are so solidly rooted in wilderness that the two simply cannot be considered as separate entities.

Despite the odds, relics of the “original wild” still exist in isolated islands within the state’s ever-expanding sea of development and modernization. Our generation, through a local community and citizen-based federal legislative process, has a unique opportunity to protect these places so that future generations might have a direct tie to their past.

We owe this push for protection on our most cherished wild public lands to our children and grandchildren. Without a solid connection to their cultural past, how can they forge a meaningful future? As part of a diverse, bipartisan coalition of stakeholders – ranging from tribal interests, land grant concessions, grazing permittees, community leaders, businesses, sportsmen, homeowners, and conservationists – we have stood up in support for the protection of these precious lands.

I urge all across the state, regardless of political affiliation or personal self interest, to encourage our congressional delegates to protect the Columbine Hondo and Rio Grande del Norte now or risk forever losing your cultural and biological integrity in the name of “progress and prosperity.”

Activists May Go Straight to Obama

From Karen Peterson, North Opinion Page Editor, Albuquerque Journal:

Conservation activists seeking to protect a big swath of northern New Mexico from future development say that they may appeal to President Barack Obama rather than waiting for a sharply divided Congress to act.

Bills to protect between 200,000 and 300,000 acres of land on both sides of the Rio Grande south of the Colorado border, including the Rio Grande Gorge, have twice been introduced by members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation in recent years, but none has yet passed.

“We’re still pushing for legislation,” said Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “But if Congress can’t get anything done, we’d like to see the president use his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives him the authority to act when Congress is unwilling or unable to protect resources.”

The bills sought to designate the area, including San Antonio Mountain west of the Rio Grande and Ute Mountain east of it, as El Rio Grande del Norte Conservation Area, protecting wildlife habitat and putting the area off limits to further development, including oil and gas drilling.

Two new wilderness areas, one for each of the area’s iconic mountains, also were to be created.

Both bills had the support of the state congressional delegation as well as many northern New Mexico constituencies ranging from hunters and anglers to conservationists and outdoor recreationists.

Also in favor of the legislation have been land grant activists, who see the designation as a way to recognize the historical importance of New Mexico’s land grants and enshrine in law traditional community uses of public land like wood and piñon gathering.

In contrast, Newcomer noted, a similar effort to protect Otero Mesa, in the southern part of the state, mainly from oil and gas drilling, has met with some opposition from the surrounding community.

“It’s ridiculous to go through all this when the people in the district support it,” Newcomer said of the northern Rio Grande effort. “But Congress refuses to act.”

The Antiquities Act grants the president the authority to act when Congress is “unwilling or unable to act to protect resources,” Newcomer said.

It has been used by presidents of both parties to create national monuments, including some of the nation’s most famous. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon National Monument — now, of course, a national park — under the act, while Democrat Jimmy Carter used the law to create the Wrangell-St. Elias National Monument in Alaska, which protects almost 11 million acres.

At the end of his second term, President Bill Clinton used the antiquities law to create three new national monuments in Utah and California that became the subject of vociferous Republican criticism. But it was Republican President George W. Bush who used the act to extend federal protections to the largest area, designating 140,000 square miles of ocean and island off Hawaii as a marine national monument.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the state’s senior Democrat in Washington, said activists shouldn’t lose patience with the effort in Congress. The current bill is “very much alive,” Jude McCartin said.

“It doesn’t have any detractors,” she said. “That it isn’t on the fast track shouldn’t concern people — Sen. Bingaman continues to pursue it.”

McCartin also noted that presidential action under the Antiquities Act “tends to be a second-term kind of thing.”

“So far as I know, the president is not now inclined to use the Antiquities Act for that purpose,” she said. “Constituents can petition, but I’m not sure there’s anyone drawing up a list for such a thing.”

Protect the Proposed Rio Grande NCA

Esther Garcia, Mayor, Village of Questa and president, San Antonio del Rio Colorado Land Gran, talks about the strong support among New Mexicans for protecting Rio Grande in order to secure our rich cultural heritage, natural resources, and economic potential of Northern New Mexico forever.

From the Albuquerque Journal:

As a Hispanic leader in New Mexico, a state that leads the nation with a 46.3 percent Hispanic population, I am writing to convey my strong support for the protection of the environmentally, culturally, and historically rich landscapes of the San Luis Valley and Rio Grande Gorge that encompass the proposed Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area in Taos County. Hispano culture and presence in New Mexico is and has always been closely connected to our states rich public lands. These areas provide our families and communities with hunting, recreation, traditions and so much more. Throughout time, they have also brought travelers and tourists, and with them economic development. As such, protecting these natural treasures is an important priority to us, and to our future.

Thanks to the leadership of Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, as well as Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, legislation has been introduced that would protect nearly 236,000 acres in north central New Mexico. The Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act also includes two wilderness areas – the 13,420-acre Cerro del Yuta Wilderness, including the iconic Ute Mountain, and the 8,000-acre Rio San Antonio Wilderness. This area includes some of New Mexico’s most spectacular landscapes, including the Rio Grande gorge – which at some places is a half mile wide across, dropping to the Rio Grande River 800 feet below, and is a vital migratory flyway for a number of bird species. In turn, our country would be so much richer preserving both the unique Southwestern landscape and its incredible Western history.

Those of us with deep roots here appreciate that the protection of these landscapes preserves grazing within the National Conservation Area and specifically protects our right to hunt, fish and collect piñon nuts and firewood. It directs the Bureau of Land Management to protect the cultural, natural and scenic resources in the area, and protects rights granted under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This measure will help ensure that these ancestral lands will remain for future generations to come.

Lands like the Valle Vidal and the Latir and Wheeler Peak Wildernesses in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains have played large roles in Hispano life and culture throughout northern New Mexico’s history. Hunting and traditional gathering activities continue to this day, and bind generations of Hispano families together. Surging interest amongst Hispanic sportsmen also means more families are taking to our wilderness in pursuit of Rocky Mountain mule deer, blue grouse, and elk in Taos County.

While New Mexico’s congressional delegation is working very hard to ensure that this bipartisan piece of legislation passes through Congress. Congress has proven itself to be incapable of moving any form of legislation, no matter how much local support exists back home. Fortunately, President Obama has the authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate public lands as National Monuments when Congress is unwilling or unable to act. If Congress continues to operate in such a dysfunctional manner, then the president should use his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect places like the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area.

Recent polls demonstrate that New Mexicans strongly support protecting these lands, with the highest support amongst the Hispanic population and the community of Taos. I firmly believe now is the time for action to protect the unique Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area, and to secure our rich cultural heritage, natural resources, and economic potential of Northern New Mexico forever.