A ‘geographic dilemma’
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.”