TAOS – Two bald eagles, sitting alertly and majestically along the banks of the Rio Grande near Pilar last week on an unseasonably warm day, speak silent volumes about the nature and appeal of New Mexico’s newest national monument.
It’s studded with extinct volcanic cones, filled with wildlife and includes the rift valley and Taos Plateau that were formed hundreds of thousands of years ago and have seen the footprints of numerous groups of ancient peoples along the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge.
With the support of the New Mexico congressional delegation, Taos Pueblo, local governments and both business and environmental groups in Taos County, President Barack Obama declared the area from Pilar north to the Colorado border the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in March 2013.
Most of the monument territory was already federal land under the aegis of the Bureau of Land Management, and now that agency is formulating a land use plan and taking public comment until March 6 – next Thursday – on what that plan should look like.
The area already had some “special management” BLM protections, but the existing land use plan “doesn’t protect it in perpetuity like the monument status does,” BLM planner Brad Higdon said.
“Early engagement is really critical in what we consider in our range of alternatives we analyze,” BLM planner Shasta Ferranto said.
The monument spans 242,000 acres, about one-sixth the size of Rhode Island. It goes from Pilar north to the Colorado border, spreading from the narrow finger of the gorge to a wide expanse of land from near N.M. 522, the road that runs north out of Taos through Questa on the east to beyond U.S. 285 on the west.
Obama’s presidential proclamation highlights four “objects” that the monument was created to protect: wildlife, ecological diversity and cultural and geologic resources.
The area is a bird migration route used seasonally by bald eagles, and is home to golden eagles, prairie and peregrine falcons, and numerous bird species. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep cling and leap along the gorge’s cliffs, while bear, mountain lion, elk, pronghorn antelope, coyote, fox and bobcat are also here.
The monument, long visited by Native Americans from the nearby Taos and Picuris pueblos, as well as Jicarilla Apache, Ute, Comanche and other Plains tribes, is dotted with petroglyphs important to those groups. Hispanic explorers, traders and post-World War I homesteaders came later.
The waters of the Rio Grande have long been popular with rafters and kayakers along spectacularly scenic portions near Taos, Pilar and Embudo, but are all but impossible to navigate near the treacherous rocks known as the “razor blades” near the border.
On a recent day-long tour, BLM officials, including archeologist Merrill Dicks, talked about how the new land use plan will be crafted and what the monument status requires them to protect.
“There were a lot of different ethnic groups that converged on this region,” Dicks said as he pointed out rock art petroglyphs in the form of horsemen, shields and spirals etched or pecked into boulders and cliffs near Pilar.
“There is a significant cultural story told on this landscape,” he said. “What you read about in history books is depicted here.”
The drawings could be ancient versions of a cellphone “selfie” done with the implements at hand. “‘Hey, we were here, we were raiding’ … it’s like taking a picture of yourself at the Grand Canyon,” Dicks said.
About four years ago, BLM employees found two intact ollas (pots or jars) in a crevice very near a road west of the spectacular Wild Rivers area, which includes the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Red River. The ollas are believed to be Pueblo pottery from maybe 800 years ago and were removed to protect them.
“That’s going to be one of the challenges in our monument plan,” said BLM Taos Field Office manager Sam DesGeorges. “How many places can you invite the public to?” Wild Rivers already has a well-developed campground with many sites perched right on the edge of the gorge and good hiking trails into the canyon.
The monument lands also contain pit houses, tools and projectile points, pot sherds and chipping sites from pre-Columbian times.
Ute Mountain near the Colorado border, whose 10,093-foot peak is the monument’s highest point, juts invitingly from flat high-desert terrain but can be an adventure to reach and has no officially designated trail heads or trails now.
Possible power line
The presidential proclamation spells out specific activities within the monument that are excluded – mining and drilling are off limits, for instance.
But there’s still the possibility that a major power transmission line could one day run through the new national monument.
“Tri-State (a Denver area energy company) has been trying to get that power through the monument and we are saying ‘no,'” said Questa Mayor Esther Garcia.
She was there in Washington, D.C., when Obama signed the declaration creating the national monument. “I do not want to see a power line going through it,” she said.
Because the management plan is still being developed, the power line question is murky, DesGeorges said.
“Does the monument plan allow it? Well, we don’t know right now,” he said.
“The (presidential) proclamation allows the development of new utility rights-of-way … and so what that seems to suggest if there was a transmission project and our land use plan allowed it, then of course it would be something we would have to consider.”
To find a solution to electric reliability in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, the board of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. approved a study in January 2013 for another line called the Valley Corridor Transmission Project, to connect near Taos with an existing line, Tri-State spokeswoman Sarah Carlisle said in an email this week.
The company “recognizes the value and sensitive nature of the resources of the San Luis Valley and surrounding areas,” Carlisle said. “It is important to know that there have been no routes identified. We are in the very early stages of studying this project.”
Billionaire hedge fund manager and new owner of Taos Ski Valley Louis Bacon a few years ago spent millions fighting off a Tri-State power line planned to run through his Colorado ranch. Bacon, acclaimed as a conservationist, did not respond to an email to his foundation asking if he would jump into the fight if the power company does propose a power line across the national monument.
John Olivas, a member of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the coalition that pushed for the national monument, agrees with Garcia, saying the power line is the coalition’s biggest concern.
Such a line would only pass power through Taos County and would not benefit local residents, and also poses aesthetic problems, Olivas said.
“If trying to maintain the viewshed of the area (is important), then this violates that,” Olivas said.
“Viewshed” is not one of the attributes of cultural sites granted protection under the monument declaration, DesGeorges said.
“We know that transmission (line) is a concern to the coalition members and to a lot of local residents,” DesGeorges said. “So it’s a conflict we have to resolve in the plan.”
The agency will analyze all options before issuing a draft environmental assessment. If a “no action” alternative were selected – meaning the existing land use plan stays in effect – then transmission lines would be considered on a case-by-case basis, DesGeorges said.
There is already one power line through the monument and if upgrades are allowed, “What is an upgrade?” Olivas wondered.
Traditional uses important
All federal lands within the monument are withdrawn from mining under the proclamation. The prohibition also includes hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” the burgeoning technique used for oil and gas extraction, said planner Ferranto. Olivas called that “a huge win” for conservationists.
Historical uses of the del Norte lands are protected and nothing in the document stops “the traditional collection of firewood and piñon nuts” for personal, non-commercial use. Cattle grazing will also continue, the proclamation states.
Preserving hunting, fishing, grazing, and wood and piñon gathering, “all of the things in the North that have helped people survive,” was key to establishing the monument, Garcia said.
Higdon said Ute Mountain is now managed to preserve it as wilderness, but that range of options considered in the planning process will include development of a trailhead and trail “since it has been identified as a need by the public.”
Taos fly-fishing guide Taylor Streit has guided clients in the area for decades and written several books on fly-fishing. He hopes the monument designation doesn’t do too much to make the area more accessible.
“Of all the fishermen of the Rio I know, no one wants to see any new trails or developments in the gorge itself,” Streit said in written comments to the BLM.
When he addressed a BLM meeting in Taos, Streit said his comment that “enough has been built and paved by the BLM already” drew applause.
Planner Ferranto agreed that several who attended that meeting suggested the monument designation could lead to “loving the monument to death” through increased visitation, which of course was one reason the Taos business community championed monument status.
For Questa Mayor Garcia, the monument’s use plan should point to preserving that land as it is now.
“I want to keep it that way for future generations,” she said.
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