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 raise awareness 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.
Also on display Wednesday were big horn sheep lounging on the banks of the river, stunning views of ragged rock canyon walls and trout jumping from the end of an angler’s line.
President Barack Obama’s designation of the Rio Grande del Norte in 2013 has been great for Taos “and great for us,” 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.
This section of the river (the put-in was at La Junta, just below where the Rio Grande and the Red River meet, and the take-out was at the John Dunn Bridge, west of Arroyo Hondo) is one of the least used sections of the river, access achieved after a more than a mile hike down into the canyon and with a mule team used to haul supplies.
Because of the difficulty getting there, it’s a part of the river sport fishermen rarely fish. Harris is trying to make it more accessible. “We’re trying to turn the paradigm from roadside river tours in favor of focusing more attention on spending time in wild places like this,” Harris said.
Toner Mitchell is New Mexico public lands coordinator for Trout Unlimited. Though he has wet his lines in Argentina, New Zealand, Alaska, and up and down the Rocky Mountains, the northern New Mexico native says this part of the river in his own backyard is one of his five favorite in the world.
“And not necessarily because of the fishing,” he said. “It’s the whole experience.”
He mentions the scenery, the ruggedness, the wildlife, “and the fishing is good. And there’s always the chance that it’ll be amazing.”
“Recreating on the river like we just did, in my opinion is the best use of resources,” Mitchell said at the end of the day.
The creation of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument was pushed by a broad coalition of local communities and stakeholders, including chambers of commerce, dozens of local businesses, Taos Pueblo, hunting and angler organizations, and environmental advocates.
The village of Questa, which a few years ago saw the closing of the Chevron molybdenum mine – the economic driver for decades in the town of fewer than 2,000 – is now focusing economic development efforts based around tourism, including making Questa a destination for fishing.
Supporters of the monument point to a study by Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based nonprofit that focuses on community development and land management in the West. The group did a before-after economic analysis of communities in the area of 17 national monuments.
Because of their recent designation, the two new New Mexico monuments – Rio Grande del Norte and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument in southern New Mexico – were not included. But the study found local economies expanded in all 17 areas studied following the creation of new monuments, and per capita income increased.
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 can designate national monuments, was to reserve land not to exceed “the smallest area compatible” with the proper care and management of protected areas. He called for a review to determine whether the designations are appropriately classified, and the effects the designations have on federal land policy and management.
“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we end this abusive practice,” Trump said at the signing ceremony for his order.
Obama’s creation of Bear 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 Bear 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.”
Harris noted that in addition to stating that grazing permits and leases “shall continue to apply” in Rio Grande del Norte, which he said satisfied many ranchers, the monument designation also allows “the traditional collection of firewood and piñon nuts” within the boundaries.
The designation does bar the sale or lease of land within the boundaries for geothermal and mineral exploration. It also restricts the use of motorized vehicles to existing roads, and non-motorized vehicles to designated roads and trails. It permits utility line rights-of-way under certain conditions.
An expedited remedy
The Antiquities Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, gives the president authority to create national monuments from federal lands by proclamation in order to protect historic, cultural and scientific interests. Sometimes, the monuments are buildings; sometimes, they are vast swaths of land totalling more than a million acres.
There are now 129 national monuments, 14 in New Mexico. Obama created 26 of them and expanded eight more, the most of any president and more than were designated by presidents from Hoover to Lyndon Johnson over a span of 40 years. His predecessor, George W. Bush, designated six. Trump’s order calls for a review of the 23 monuments designated since 1996.
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.
“I do not want to rip a Band-Aid off of a monument that is settled,” he said, adding he’ll confer with the governor, the congressional delegation and local government representatives. “And if it is settled and people are happy with it, I find no reason to recommend any changes.”
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 rest of the state’s other Democratic representatives in Washington – Udall, and Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján – staunchly support the monument designations. They issued a joint news release June 20 saying the designations “protect precious resources, enjoy overwhelming public support (and) boost local economies.”
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 south 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.
Gov. Susana Martinez’s office did not respond to questions from the Journal asking where she stands on the issue.
On Monday, State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn weighed in with a letter to the Department of the Interior, calling for the monument review process to be expedited so that the state can “trade out” state land inside the monument boundaries or for a reduction in the size of the monuments “to allow the State to use its trust land to achieve the purposes for which the federal government” granted the trust lands to New Mexico. State trust lands are leased out for many purposes, including grazing and gas or oil drilling.
“The need for an expedited remedy is particularly acute in light of fiscal difficulties the State of New Mexico is experiencing,” Dunn wrote.
Dunn said there are 41,155 acres of trust land landlocked with Rio Grande del Norte and 67,547 acres within Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks. He wants to trade for 78,000 acres of federal land.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, says she hasn’t heard much from her members about the Rio Grande del Norte, but ranchers in the south are “hugely concerned” and want the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks’ boundaries to be reduced.
The group still doesn’t know whether access for grazing cattle will be impacted by the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks designation. “We’re three or four years into this designation and there’s not a management plan out yet, so we don’t know what it will restrict,” Cowan said.
She questions whether Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks even meets the definition of a national monument and said the government hasn’t yet spelled what resources the designation protects.
Cowan lamented different types of land designations that impact ranchers. “We have federal monument designations, (Areas of Critical Environmental Concern) designations, wilderness designations, wilderness study designations. Designation after designation is aimed at restricting use,” she said.
The New Mexico 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 in support of reducing the boundaries. “We have no issues with current monument designations in New Mexico,” said Robert McIntyre, spokesman for the association. “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.
Up north, the Stockman’s Association has opposed the Rio Grande del Norte designation from the beginning, despite the wording permitting grazing. It’s the same argument the association has against wilderness designations, says spokesman Sanchez.
“We find ourselves in this geographic dilemma where, in towns in Rio Arriba and Taos counties, we have little property left,” he said. “We’re struggling economically and culturally. We have no tax base to support our people. Agriculture, ranching, timber, mining – all these grassroots industries are all fading away.”
Sanchez is a land grant advocate and says much of the land that Spanish settlers have been utilizing to raise cattle since 1598 is gone. “Those traditions run very deep and they’ve taken out millions of acres. It has had a devastating impact,” he said.
Sanchez says he’s a living example. He owns property that straddles the New Mexico-Colorado border. He says his family has had grazing permits for years in both the San Juan and Santa Fe national forests. When the government granted a wilderness designation in the San Juan National Forest in Colorado, he said, “Sure enough, shortly after that when they started revising the forest plan and range plan, they started changing the standards of use.”
As a result, Sanchez lost a grazing permit. He said it had a $2 million impact on his ranching operation. Without room to graze, he had to sell his cows, and his children went to work at Wal-Mart.
Sanchez predicts the same thing will happen to those with grazing allotments within the Rio Grande del Norte. “We know for sure that in the long run those people will be taken out of there,” he said.
One battle at a time
Back at the boathouse of Far Flung Adventures along the Rio Grande, Harris, whose own 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.”