PUBLIC LANDS:

Rio Grande monument touted as economic boost for northern N.M.

TAOS, N.M. -- Drivers crossing into town on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge can't miss the Taos Mesa Brewing Co. a few miles east of the river.

The Quonset hut-style aluminum building is fitted with solar water heaters that shimmer in the bright desert sunlight, catching the eyes of mountain bikers, anglers and hikers from the gorge whose throats may be parched from the arid desert air.

"Everyone who goes out there will have to pass by," said brewery co-owner Dan Irion, who lives just outside this town of about 5,700. "We'll have a captive audience for our business."

Irion's brewery hosted hundreds Saturday to celebrate President Obama's designation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, one of five monuments the president declared last week using the 1906 Antiquities Act. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spoke at the event, as did current and former New Mexico lawmakers and local officials.

The 243,000-acre Rio Grande monument was designated to protect the area's extinct volcanoes, wildlife including elk, eagles and cutthroat trout, and American Indian petroglyphs and other historic sites dating back thousands of years.

But it is also expected to bring more than 100,000 additional visitors to this high-desert plateau each year, generating millions of dollars in additional revenue for Taos Mesa Brewing and rafting companies, fly-fishing shops, art galleries, restaurants and hotels in Taos and Rio Arriba counties.

"What we're really looking to do in the future is tie in with adventure operators," including paddlers on the Rio Grande's famous upper box and Taos box segments and the mountain bikers who ride the gorge's basalt rock West Rim, Irion said. "We're hoping the brewery turns into a focal spot."

Brewery visitors can sip beer on a patio overlooking the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains.

While past monument designations have incited controversy in Congress, the Rio Grande monument carried strong support from the local politicians, business leaders and residents who attended Saturday's ceremony.

The hourlong event was followed by a mariachi band and the tapping of a commemorative batch of the brewery's "Rio Grande del Norte National Monument Pale Ale." In the beer garden, children rode donkeys and hoisted signs thanking Obama for the national monument.

"All of those who are making this place an economic engine of northern New Mexico, they are the people we are standing up for today," said Salazar, referring to the hunters, anglers, paddlers and photographers who frequent the 800-foot-deep river gorge and its surrounding sagebrush plateau.

Salazar was joined by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who was the first to propose legislation in 2007 to designate the area as a national conservation area and wilderness.

The Rio Grande marked the first landscape-scale national monument designation for Obama, whose first four monuments in Virginia, California and Colorado protected historic forts, archaeological sites and the home of labor leader César Chávez. Other monuments designated last week included Washington state's San Juan Islands and historical sites in Ohio, Maryland and Delaware.

Salazar is in Anacortes, Wash., today for an event celebrating the San Juan Islands National Monument and tomorrow will travel to Ohio to recognize the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.

The Rio Grande designation will not change management of the lands, but the national monument label is expected to raise the area's profile and possibly get it into guidebooks and travel blogs, local officials said.

"It raises the awareness of the entire country that there are other natural sites of beauty," said Lawrence Rael, president of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, who also spoke at Saturday's event. "These areas in northern New Mexico have been traditionally and continue to be challenging areas to create jobs."

Monuments as economic engines

Though some critics oppose closing lands to energy development, across the West, communities that surround large monuments have shown consistent increases in population, employment and personal and per-capita income, according to a 2011 study by Headwaters Economics (E&ENews PM, Sept. 12, 2011).

"This is a special place, and we're going to put it on the map," said Heinrich, who co-sponsored S. 241, the legislation on which the monument was based. "We're going to see real meaningful economic development for this community as a result."

One local rafting guide said he plans to hire extra staff and invest in new infrastructure in anticipation of new visitors this summer. Trout Unlimited recently called this section of the Rio Grande "arguably New Mexico's most iconic and expansive wild trout fishery," praising the monument's protection of more than 60 miles of stream and habitat for pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep and elk.

An August 2012 report by Denver-based BBC Research & Consulting found that elevating the Rio Grande del Norte to monument status would increase annual recreation spending from $17.2 million to $32.2 million and boost monument-related jobs from 312 to 591.

Annual visitation was expected to rise from 325,000 to 488,000, and about 10 percent of those visitors were expected to stay in hotels, the report found. Visitors would hire tour guides and purchase food, groceries, gasoline or souvenirs, it said.

Esther Garcia, mayor of the village of Questa on the monument's eastern border, said the designation could promote business development in her community of about 1,800, which has only a few restaurants and one hotel that she said is in poor condition.

A few years ago, stimulus funding was used to build a single-track mountain biking trail connecting Questa to the monument gorge, an effort aimed at diversifying the village's economy.

The monument designation also preserves existing traditional uses including grazing, firewood collection and the collection of pinyon nuts, which local residents roast for food, Garcia said.

"It means a whole lot to the people that we are preserving something that's very beautiful for future generations," said Garcia, who last Monday joined Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for the signing of the proclamation at the White House. "We don't have a lot of businesses, so we hope this is going to create something for us."

This week's edition of Taos News included three full-page ads from local governments, businesses and environmental groups thanking Obama for protecting the lands.

The paper's editorial board said local support gave the proposal credibility in Washington, D.C. "It is indeed rare to see such unity among local government officials, tribal leaders, environmentalists, sportsmen, business owners, ranchers and land-grant heirs," the paper said.

'Extremely important for New Mexico'

While some House Republicans have opposed the president's use of the Antiquities Act, arguing that it impinges on the power of Congress, Bingaman said presidents have wielded the act appropriately when Congress has been unable to act.

"It's been extremely important for New Mexico," he said, noting past presidential designations to protect the White Sands and Bandelier national monuments and Carlsbad Caverns before it became a national park. "I think presidents have used that authority very responsibly."

At Saturday's event, Salazar also unveiled a prototype of new signs showing the river flowing through Taos Gorge that will welcome drivers passing the monument.

The sign -- done in the style of poster art done for national parks by the Works Public Administration in the 1930s -- is part of an attempt by the Bureau of Land Management to raise the profile of its National Landscape Conservation System, BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel said.

Monument designations make it easier for an area to receive funding, she said, adding that Rio Grande del Norte will now also qualify for funding from the agency's NLCS budget. Money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund may also be used to acquire inholdings from willing sellers, Hummel said.