CAJA DEL RIO – Atop this plateau – stretching from La Cienega across the Rio Grande to Buckman Canyon and from La Bajada escarpment to the outskirts of Santa Fe itself – a culturally rich and sensitive site has become the bull’s-eye pitting a proposed federal government power line upgrade against history and future conservation.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, through the National Nuclear Security Administration, is seeking a 12.5-mile, 115-kilovolt power transmission line that would cut across the plateau near an existing line, spanning the Rio Grande at White Rock Canyon.
At stake is an area of some 104,349 acres steeped in pre- and post-European contact Native American cultural sites, such Spanish Colonial sites as El Camino Real and even such modern landmarks as nearly 100-year-old signage from Route 66, formerly NM 1.
Within this area, some La Cieneguilla petroglyphs have been dated as more than 700 years old, and they occasionally share indigo-basalt panels with distinctly Spanish etchings – a blending of the cultures. Examples of puebloan dry farming techniques are case studies for water management in dry habitats.
Bears, cougars and other carnivores roam the area, as do elk, mule deer and big horn sheep. Collared lizards scurry for prey while trying to avoid becoming the same for raptors above.
“You can’t go 100 yards on this place without some sort of Indigenous or Hispano artifact,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, northern conservation director for NM Wild. “The whole place is an artifact. We want to maintain that cultural integrity. … It’s New Mexican and American history; a history book on the land. It’s the best one in the Southwest and I would argue in all of the Americas because of all of these crossroads coming together.”
The overhead electrical power line capacity upgrade will be routed near Forest Service Road 24 and run parallel to existing transmission lines until it crosses onto Los Alamos National Laboratory property.
The NNSA has given its final environmental assessment for construction and operation for an underground fiber optic line project, which follows approximately the same course, with a “finding of no significant impact.” It is currently negotiating with PNM for a right of way, according to a laboratory spokesman.
Special-use permit applications have been submitted to the U.S. Forest Service.
The government received nearly 1,100 responses from the public during an open comment period.
The NNSA says the new lines are needed because the old lines will reach physical capacity load limit within five years.
Phoebe Suina of Cochiti Pueblo said the land, now overseen somewhat loosely by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, has long been sacred to puebloan peoples.
“One of the things to mention, and I think it’s important context, the Caja area and many areas around Santa Fe and around the Rio Grande before the Spanish came to this land, all of that was pueblo country, pueblo territory,” she said. “A number of pueblo communities were situated in this landscape and you can see the evidence of that even today within the footprint and the landscape of the Caja del Rio.
“One of the things to share, those descendents are still here, Tesuque, Cochiti, Santa Domingo in particular, we have ancestral ties, as well as current ties, to this landscape and the resources that are within the landscape that we hold dear,” Suina said. “And those of us living today feel a … sacred responsibility to steward and protect the resources and the lands within this landscape for our kids, grandchildren and future generations, just as our grandmas and grandpas did for us since time immemorial.”
Stakeholders that include local permittees, conservation organizations and local pueblos are seeking to turn Caja del Rio into a cultural heritage area to preserve it from additional encroachment, and with stricter oversight to prevent additional damage.
“This has always been around, but we never took it seriously because nobody was ever protecting it because nobody ever destroyed stuff,” said Julian Gonzales, a local rancher who occasionally runs cattle and hunts on the land. “We used it. And if we used it, we cleaned it up.”
On an escarpment that overlooks the rugged Santa Fe River canyon and the old Ryal Ranch now on BLM land, stacks of pallets await the next group of carousers to ignite a bonfire as a hacked juniper struggles to survive. The area is littered with broken bottles and aluminum cans.
During a recent community cleanup session, two large, roll-off dumpsters were filled within four hours, Gonzales said.
Darrin Muenzberg, whose family has resided in La Bajada village for centuries, looks out over the escarpment and sees the past, as well as the future.
“As you see the river going down here and you see that it is being put to beneficial use and then you see the natural resources all around it, you realize that this is all an ejido, the common lands, all of these communities, from Cieneguilla to Las Cienegas, Cañon, all the way down to La Bajada,” he said.
It’s not just about the land, it’s about a way of life, Muenzberg said.
“As much as the land and these natural resources have sustained our culture over 400 years, it’s important to realize that our culture has sustained this land in the condition you’re seeing it now over that same time,” he said. “This is not pristine and wild. This has been influenced by human attention and continuing stewardship. That’s what we see here. That’s what needs to maintained. As much as the land is integral to sustaining the culture, the continuation of the culture is integral to sustaining the land.”
Leaving the landscape without significant oversight, however, leaves it vulnerable.
“The challenge is instead of getting into this very compartmentalized, provincial mentality of this landscape of who owns this history and who owns this landscape and whose identity is more important,” said Andrew Black, National Wildlife Federation public lands field director. “The reality is let’s look at this landscape as a much more ecological whole and a much more cosmic whole, and kind of talk about how do we steward this landscape and be really good stewards of creation.”
“From a spiritual and a practical perspective, there are a lot of threats to this landscape from illegal shooting and poaching to illegal dumping, defacement and destruction of the petroglyphs, illegal trails being created, (off-highway vehicle) misuse,” Black said. “… I think we need to stand back and say, hey, ownership is going to be completely irrelevant if the landscape is completely destroyed.”