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Great American Outdoors Act will bring changes in New Mexico

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Some of northern New Mexico’s public lands could be undergoing significant face-lifts in the coming years as the Bureau of Land Management looks to prioritize the $18.5 million slated for the state’s district over the next five years under the recently signed Great American Outdoors Act.

The Taos Junction Recreation Site north of Pilar is slated for improvements under the Great American Outdoors Act. New Mexico is in line for $18.5 million in funds over the next five years. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Reconstruction of the Taos Junction Bridge Campground – an unremarkable and dusty little site with a several campgrounds, shade structures and a bathroom in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Rio Pueblo de Taos just north of Pilar – is among the handful of projects already identified, said William Perry Pendley, bureau deputy director for policy and programs.

Pendley has been in New Mexico this week visiting various bureau sites across the state.

Specific details on what will be done at the campground have not been finalized yet, he said. Almost 20 other sites are being looked at for potential work while the $18.5 million will be split up with 35% earmarked for repairing bridges and roads and the remaining 65% for visitor centers and recreation sites like campgrounds, access to rivers and lakes and trails. Much of this work has been necessary for some time but has been deferred for a lack of funds.

BLM Deputy Director William Perry Pendley and BLM New Mexico Archaeologist Cynthia Herhahn inspect the petroglyphs at La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs north of La Cienega. (Courtesy of The Bureau Of Land Management)

We’ll be listening to our state director in New Mexico and looking at our various district offices,” Pendley said. “Once we have those lists finalized, we’ll get to work. It’s wonderful news for people who love the public lands. That’s our commitment.”

The campground is close to the trailhead for La Vista Verde Trail, a rather interesting, there-and-back, 2.4-mile, roundtrip excursion that roams into the Rio Grande Gorge below its rim, making its way into the gorge via relatively level rock benches.

The bureau manages about 2.1 million acres across the state, including national conservation areas, national monuments, wilderness areas, and wilderness study areas.

Much of that land is barely trammeled with few improvements. And while COVID-19 compressed and squeezed availability at many public lands, bureau-managed lands remained opened, Pendley said.

It led to more people discovering bureau lands – which are frequently difficult to recognize because of those lack of improvements – and will encourage them to return, he said.

“We want to be their playground,” Pendley said. “We’ve gone through a terrible time, but one of the great things about the BLM, we kept all of our lands accessible. Most national parks and state parks, they were closed.”

That was an important mandate for the bureau, he said.

“People had to get out, they were going stir crazy,” Pendley said. “BLM lands are open. They remained open. We’ve bent over backwards to keep facilities open. The people had to know that we can recreate and get outdoors.”

And that opened paths that many people might not have otherwise found.

“As Bureau of Land Management lands are discovered, I think people are going to come back BLM lands,” he said. “We want to be open, we want to have great facilities and we want to be supportive of their activities. We’re going to be able to maintain them and improve them.”

Among the stops on his whirlwind tour of the state, Pendley visited La Cienguilla Petroglyph site just outside of Santa Fe. It is characteristic of so much bureau-managed land, he said.

“What’s so great about it, it’s so close to Santa Fe,” Pendley said. “It’s really a typical BLM site. It’s nondescript, you just drive down the road and there it is. You park in a small parking lot and start hiking up the trail and you start seeing things from thousands of years ago. Seeing the creativity in the shapes, I can’t help but marvel at it. I have five grandchildren and I have postcards that I will send to every one of them. I marveled at the petroglyphs.”

The bureau recently moved its staff to the west from Washington, making its main headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado. As part of that move, more than 35 archeological experts were reassigned to the Santa Fe office, Pendley said, to better help manage the lands here.

“We believe those issues are most significant and we wanted our people on the ground here making the decisions,” he said.

The BLM plans to do a complete makeover to the Taos Junction Recreation Site and campground in the Orilla Verde Recreation Area north of Pilar. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

One thing the added visitation did bring was more trash and like others who deal with the wild lands, Pendley found that to be a concern.

“If you see something out there, if you see graffiti, let us know,” he said. “Let our partners know. As the director at La Cineguilla told me, ‘Nothing causes more graffiti, than graffiti.’ Nothing says no one cares more than graffiti. I’m also disappointed by the dumping. We have to clean that up. If we care about the lands, if we care about saving the lands, we can’t do that. These are not BLM lands, they’re the public’s lands. The public has every right to enjoy them.”