Rio Grande del Norte Area a Natural, Cultural Treasure

Erminio MartinezVeteran Erminio Martinez, from Taos, reflects on why Rio Grande del Norte should be permanently protected. From the Albuquerque Journal (April 29, 2012):

I was born and raised in Taos County and come from a ranching family that has lived off the land for eight generations. Today, as a registered grazing permittee, I continue to run cattle on several allotments throughout the Carson National Forest. Growing up in the ranching business allowed me the good fortune of spending most of my life in the great outdoors. Like my father and grandfather, I quickly learned to love the beauty of the wide-open landscapes and to understand the importance of sound conservation of the abundant natural resources on which so many New Mexicans depend for their livelihoods.

After my military service, I attended New Mexico Highlands University and then the National Judicial College. I served for 20 years as a magistrate judge in Taos County, and have worked for the Taos tribal government and the Pojoaque tribal government during my career. I continue to be active in conservation, including through my service with local land trusts.

To me, the wide open landscape of the Rio Grande del Norte area is a treasure that we must do all we can to protect. It is not only a natural treasure, but also a treasury of cultural resources and associations, evoking the Native American, Spanish, and American history that contribute to the diverse values of this area. Even though this region may seem relatively remote, it lies in the path of pressures for change that could slowly but surely affect the resources that makes this landscape so special.

Conservation is about exercising protection of our lands today with the foresight that our children and their children will inherit this precious landscape.

I believe that what Teddy Roosevelt said about the Grand Canyon should be our guidance for the Rio Grande del Norte: “In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

The Grand Canyon, of course, is a national park and is protected from all development. With the Rio Grande del Norte we have challenges, for this is a working landscape that embraces traditional land uses such as ranching, hunting, fishing and wood and herb gathering. For example, many local multi-generational ranching families like mine rely on their use of portions of these federal lands for grazing their livestock.

Fortunately, Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall and Congressmen Ben Ray Lujan and Martin Heinrich are working to ensure these land uses can continue, and that the land will stay undeveloped. After gathering support over the last few years with a broad cross-section of community members and local businesses, they have introduced legislation to designate two new wilderness areas and safeguard 236,000 acres as a National Conservation Area. The Rio Grande del Norte Conservation Area Establishment Act (H. R. 1241 and S. 667)is crafted to protect the not just grazing but other traditional uses that we have enjoyed for hundreds of years.

The balanced legislation stipulates that a comprehensive conservation and management plan will be prepared, with full opportunity for input from local residents, including grazing permittees and acequias associations. In this sense, the legislation creates an overall conservation framework for the area, and the subsequent conservation plan will fill in essential details. This will be done in an open, public, and democratic process, which assures all of us who live and work here that our voices will be heard in shaping the conservation and management of this tremendous resource.

Permanent protection for the Rio Grande del Norte area will be a gift we can pass down to all the generations of New Mexicans who will follow us. Congress should listen to the many voices who support this bill – ranchers, sportsmen, business owners, local elected officials – and pass this conservation bill currently in Congress.

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.”

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.