A ‘ge­o­graphic dilemma’

Albuquerque Journal - - FRONT PAGE - BY T.S. LAST

TAOS — Pet­ro­glyphs and pic­tographs, a peregrine fal­con swoop­ing down on a stray bat, and baby blue herons pop­ping their heads out from a nest atop a dead pon­derosa pine were among the high­lights of a day-long raft float down the Wild Rivers sec­tion of the Rio Grande del Norte Na­tional Mon­u­ment.

A me­dia tour of the Mid­dle Box por­tion of the Rio Grande — north­west of Taos, along the Rio Grande Gorge — on Wed­nes­day was or­ga­nized by Trout Un­lim­ited, the New Mex­ico Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion, Back Coun­try Hun­ters and An­glers, and the Theodore Roo­sevelt Con­ser­va­tion Part­ner­ship.

The idea was to demon­strate their view about what’s at stake for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and busi­nesses while the fates of the north­ern New Mex­ico mon­u­ment and more than two dozen oth­ers are un­der re­view, as per an ex­ec­u­tive or­der by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s na­tional mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tion of the Rio Grande del Norte in 2013 has been “great for us” and great for Taos, Steve Harris, owner and op­er­a­tor of Far Flung Ad­ven­tures, told a group of about 15 par­tic­i­pants — about half of them jour­nal­ists — as they took a break along the banks of the river for lunch and a cou­ple of hours of fish­ing.

The cre­ation of Rio Grande del Norte Na­tional Mon­u­ment was pro­moted by a broad coali­tion of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing cham­bers of com­merce, dozens of lo­cal busi­nesses, Taos Pue­blo, hunt­ing and an­gler or­ga­ni­za­tions and en­vi­ron­ment ad­vo­cates.

Un­cer­tainty over the fu­ture plagues new na­tional mon­u­ments in New Mex­ico

The vil­lage of Questa, which a few years ago saw the clos­ing of the Chevron molyb­de­num mine — the eco­nomic driver for decades in a town of fewer than 2,000 — is now fo­cus­ing eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment ef­forts based around tourism, in­clud­ing mak­ing Questa a des­ti­na­tion for fish­ing.

The New Mex­ico Oil and Gas As­so­ci­a­tion has no spe­cific crit­i­cism of the Rio Grande del Norte des­ig­na­tion and nei­ther does a statewide ranch­ers group, the New Mex­ico Cat­tle Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion.

Per­haps the lone voice cry­ing in the wilder­ness — or the na­tional mon­u­ment — in op­po­si­tion comes from the North­ern New Mex­ico Stock­man’s As­so­ci­a­tion, al­though graz­ing is al­lowed to con­tinue un­der Obama’s des­ig­na­tion.

As­so­ci­a­tion leader Dave Sanchez ar­gues that will change. “Once a des­ig­na­tion hap­pens, a mon­u­ment or wilder­ness, it changes the stan­dards (for al­low­able use),” he said. “The agency peo­ple, they find ways to get rid of them by play­ing with the stan­dards.”

Trump’s or­der to re­view mon­u­ments says the orig­i­nal ob­jec­tives of the fed­eral An­tiq­ui­ties Act, un­der which pres­i­dents des­ig­nate na­tional mon­u­ments, was to re­serve land not to ex­ceed “the small­est area com­pat­i­ble” with the proper care and man­age­ment of pro­tected ar­eas.

Trump called for a re­view to de­ter­mine whether the des­ig­na­tions are ap­pro­pri­ately clas­si­fied, and the ef­fects the des­ig­na­tions have on fed­eral land pol­icy and man­age­ment.

Obama’s cre­ation of Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment in Utah, which faced strong op­po­si­tion from the start, has drawn much of the fo­cus. In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke has al­ready pro­posed re­vis­it­ing the size of Bears Ears.

While Rio Grande del Norte has had min­i­mal op­po­si­tion, there’s still con­cern that re­view by Zinke’s Depart­ment of In­te­rior could re­sult in a re­duc­tion of its size, cur­rently 242,500 acres mostly in Taos County.

“I think we’ll get a clue when they de­cide about Bears Ears,” Harris said. “It’ll tell us a lot about where we’re headed.”

In re­sponse to ques­tion­ing from New Mex­ico Demo­cratic Sen. Tom Udall dur­ing a hear­ing on the In­te­rior Depart­ment bud­get last week, Zinke said he was open to the idea of keep­ing the two new mon­u­ments in New Mex­ico at their cur­rent con­fig­u­ra­tions if he found com­mu­nity lead­ers were in sup­port. But he made no prom­ises.

Zinke agreed to visit at least one of New Mex­ico’s mon­u­ments soon and ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion from Sen. Martin Hein­rich to do so on horse­back.

Hein­rich and the New Mex­ico’s other Demo­cratic con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Wash­ing­ton — Udall, and Reps. Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham and Ben Ray Lu­ján — staunchly sup­port the mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tions.

But the day after Udall ques­tioned Zinke, the House had its turn.

Repub­li­can U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce called on Zinke to re­duce the size of the Or­gan Moun­tains Desert Peaks — now 496,000 acres — in his south­ern New Mex­ico dis­trict, while lift­ing a stack of pa­pers that con­tained sig­na­tures from 800 busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als who wanted to re­duce the size of the fed­er­ally pro­tected area by 88 per­cent, to 60,000 acres.

Caren Cowan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cat­tle Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, says she hasn’t heard much from her mem­bers about Rio Grande del Norte, but ranch­ers in the south are “hugely con­cerned” and want the Or­gan Moun­tains Desert Peaks’ bound­aries to be re­duced.

The Oil and Gas As­so­ci­a­tion sup­ports re­view of the two New Mex­ico mon­u­ments to as­sure they are of ap­pro­pri­ate size, but hasn’t taken a stance on the bound­aries.

Robert McIn­tyre, spokesman for the as­so­ci­a­tion, said, “Our pri­mary con­cern is ac­cess to fed­eral land for pro­duc­tion pur­poses.”

He said there cur­rently aren’t any ap­pli­ca­tions for per­mits within the bound­aries of the two mon­u­ments and that he doesn’t see any fu­ture pro­duc­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Back at the boathouse of Far Flung Ad­ven­tures along the Rio Grande, Harris, whose busi­ness re­lies on the river, says that for him, the Rio Grande del Norte is about pro­tect­ing wa­ter.

Less and less wa­ter is com­ing down­stream from Colorado, he says, so while the des­ig­na­tion of Rio Grande del Norte was a vic­tory for con­ser­va­tion, keep­ing it as it is will be an­other bat­tle.

“Con­ser­va­tion is done on an in­cre­men­tal ba­sis,” he said. “You fight one bat­tle at a time, and some­times you have to fight them all over again.”


ABOVE: A bighorn sheep looks out over the Rio Grande in the Mid­dle Box area of the Rio Grande Gorge, where sup­port­ers of the Rio Grande del Norte showed off the sights on a raft­ing trip this week.


A view from the crest of the Rio Grande Gorge look­ing down on the Mid­dle Box area of the river.

Pet­ro­glyphs can be seen while float­ing down the Mid­dle Box area of the Rio Grande.


A small but­ter­fly sits on a daisy along the Mid­dle Box area of the Rio Grande, part of the Rio Grande del Norte Na­tional Mon­u­ment.

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