Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
On a rugged, remote landscape west of Albuquerque, high mesas and cliffs give way to valleys dotted by volcanic cones.
Elk roam vast grasslands under wide-open skies with views of Mount Taylor in the distance.
About 54,000 acres of private ranchland will now become part of New Mexico’s largest wildlife management area, thanks to an acquisition project funded by conservation groups, and federal and state money.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish will work this summer and fall to survey species and habitat on the property, said wildlife management division chief Stewart Liley.
“We will develop a management plan for public access for things like birding, hiking and hunting,” Liley said. “First and foremost, our interest in this is wildlife conservation.”
Together, the two L Bar Ranches span from the Cibola National Forest to Laguna Pueblo lands.
The two properties will be added to the adjacent 14,000-acre Marquez Wildlife Management Area.
Turkeys, black bears, migratory birds and cougars also inhabit the lands.
“We’re really looking forward to having that large intact ecosystem of pretty untouched, unfragmented habitat,” Liley said. “It offers great access for wildlife viewing and hunting.”
Game and Fish could have a proposed management plan by this winter.
That plan would guide where the public could explore the property in vehicles or on trails.
The L Bar Ranches have significance for several tribes and pueblos, including Acoma, Zuni, Laguna, Hopi and Navajo.
About half of the ranchland is within the Mount Taylor Traditional Cultural Property.
The state designation recognizes the area’s archaeological and cultural significance.
Theresa Pasqual, tribal historic preservation director for Acoma Pueblo, said generations of Pueblo people used the land before it was private.
“The purchase and protection of the L Bar property represents the potential for younger generations of Acoma children who have never seen those lands to now have a chance to get reacquainted with them,” Pasqual said.
The ranches are also close to Mount Taylor – the dormant volcano site that Pasqual said is important for Indigenous people to orient and connect themselves to the landscape.
Tribes may pursue an ethnographic study of the newly public land that could identify pilgrimage routes and cultural sites.
Laguna Pueblo Gov. Martin Kowemy said that the project will foster a connection with the land “that belongs to everyone.”
The $34 million project was funded mostly by New Mexico’s allotment of sales taxes on hunting and fishing licenses and equipment.
The Legislature this year allocated $5 million for Game and Fish land acquisition projects.
The Trust for Public Land, New Mexico Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation also received grants, and worked to finalize the purchase.
Jim Petterson, Mountain West region vice president with the Trust for Public Land, said the group jumped at the conservation opportunity when the properties came up for sale.
“It’s a climate-resilient landscape,” Petterson said. “That elevation gradient allows for space and room for species to move and adapt as the climate continues to change.”
The remote land has few public roads.
But proximity to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Grants and several pueblos could make it ideal for more outdoor recreation.
“This project stitches together an important area,” Petterson said. “We’re hopeful that this isn’t the end of the story, and that the public gets out there and enjoys this land.”
Game and Fish purchased the entire 17,600-acre “Upper L Bar” property outright.
The agency will officially own the rest of the Lower L Bar in several years as it repays the Trust for Public Land with federal funds that come in annual installments.
In the meantime, the department will manage all the acreage.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who advocated for federal and state dollars to purchase the property, called the acquisition the “single greatest new addition to New Mexico’s protected public lands in a generation.”
“I can’t wait for New Mexicans to see just how special this place is,” Heinrich said.