A meeting of top Interior Department officials two days ago in New Mexico has raised hopes that the White House will declare a national monument to protect a rugged river gorge and sagebrush mesa near the state's border with Colorado.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar heard from dozens of local residents during a standing-room-only meeting Saturday at the Kachina Lodge in Taos to discuss protecting the Rio Grande del Norte, an area prized by sportsmen, hikers and tribes for its wildlife and sacred values.
The area is marked by volcanic cones and the Ute Mountain jutting up from the surrounding valley and provides habitat for elk, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, falcons and great horned owls.
For conservationists, the meeting marked the administration's first official step toward using the Antiquities Act to designate the 236,000-acre Rio Grande Gorge and Taos Plateau as a national monument.
"I think the landscape and the resources there are absolutely worthy of protection," said Brian O'Donnell, executive director of the Durango, Colo.-based Conservation Lands Foundation, who attended Saturday's meeting.
According to O'Donnell, Salazar at one point in the meeting asked for a show of hands of those who support a national monument designation, and almost all hands went up. None was raised after Salazar asked who opposed such a designation, O'Donnell said. Salazar said he was there to take the opinion of the community back to the president.
He was accompanied by Neil Kornze, acting deputy director for policy and programs at the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the area, O'Donnell said. The meeting also included BLM New Mexico State Director Jesse Juen and Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who has introduced H.R. 1241 to protect the land as a national conservation area.
While Luján's bill carries the support of BLM and there is companion legislation sponsored in the Senate by New Mexico Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, few expect the legislation to pass both chambers during the fiscal talks of the lame duck. The lawmakers in recent months have suggested that a national monument is the only viable path forward amid the partisan dysfunction in Congress (E&ENews PM, Oct. 26).
Such a move would mark the first landscape-scale monument designation for President Obama, whose first four monuments in Virginia, California and Colorado protected historic forts, archaeological sites and the home of labor leader César Chávez.
If designated, a monument would be expected to follow the contours of the New Mexico lawmakers' bill.
"The Rio Grande del Norte is one of the crowning jewels in our state," Luján said after the meeting. "The people of Taos and the surrounding communities made it clear to Secretary Salazar today that protecting this beautiful land should be a top priority."
Luján said his staff had met extensively with local ranchers, conservationists and other constituents to ensure the preservation of traditional land uses, including grazing and the gathering of pinyon nuts, wild herbs and firewood.
A monument is backed by Taos County and the Taos and Mora Valley chambers of commerce as well as sportsmen's, conservation and Latino groups and some ranchers.
In a sign of the administration's support, BLM last fall included the area in a report to Congress identifying 18 backcountry areas deserving of protections as national conservation areas or wilderness (E&ENews PM, Nov. 10, 2011).
The report said that blue-ribbon trout fishing in the Rio Grande and its tributaries attracts fishermen from across the country and that public lands in New Mexico are responsible for about $350 million in annual recreation-related economic output.
"Public lands provide huge economic benefits to communities through tourism and outdoor recreation, and the Rio Grande del Norte is no exception," Salazar said Friday. "We need to ensure that generations to come have the opportunity to experience this iconic Western landscape."
The White House is likely to move cautiously on new designations, which are viewed with skepticism by some Western Republicans who have moved to block other Interior conservation policies.
Some critics argue that presidents have abused their authority and exceeded the original intent of the Antiquities Act, which is to allow the executive branch to prevent archaeological, geological and scientific wonders from imminent threats, such as plunder or looting. A key provision in the law states that monuments should use the smallest footprint necessary to protect the resource at hand, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, has said in the past.
While President Clinton designated or expanded more than 20 national monuments during his eight years in office, perhaps his best-known move was the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which he declared in September 1996, sowing distrust among Utah lawmakers to this day.
The vast majority of Clinton's designations happened in his second term, and most were vetted through a transparent public process.
Conservationists are lobbying the president to designate bigger monuments in his second term, including in New Mexico's Organ Mountains in Doña Ana County, in addition to a 1.7 million-acre watershed north of the Grand Canyon, the Tule Springs in Las Vegas and Colorado's Browns Canyon.
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