Last Saturday was a blustery one and we set off in the hot-air balloon hoping to drop down into the Rio Grande Gorge near John Dunn Bridge. Instead, we set off to the north on a bit of a wild ride toward the Colorado border and into El Rio Grande del Norte National Monument (more on that, and other rides, in another post).
It was the kind of morning that makes you ecstatic to be alive.
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Starting back in mid-2006 and up until March 2008 I worked with the BLM and Senator Bingaman’s staff to lay the foundations for the creation of this legislation. My main task was to work with ranchers, sportsmens, local government officials, tribal representatives and others to find a way to work an agreement on what the legislation would look like and how the NCA might be managed if passed. Community outreach and coalition building all the way – my specialty.
It wasn’t easy, but with some decent early successes the process was able to move forward.
On March 30, 2011, Senator Bingaman introduced the El Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation (NCA) Area Establishment Act. Senator Udall cosponsored the act. The legislation would create about 235,980 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), including two new wildernesses: the 13,420-acre Ute Mountain in Taos County and the 8,000-acre Río San Antonio Wilderness around San Antonio Mountain in Río Arriba County (map).
Just about everything you see in this photograph (looking north up the Rio Grande corridor from about 500 feet up near Cebolla Mesa) would be protected by the legislation. Ute Mountain is the large, volcanic mountain at the center top of the photograph.
Senator Bingaman has been trying to pass the legislation before he retires in December of this year (luckily, we have conservation star Senator Martin Heinrich to take over the seat). On October 25, 2012, Senator Bingaman sent a letter to President Obama stating that he and Senator Udall will:
“….continue to work to advance legislation in the Senate to conserve these important areas in New Mexico, but in the absence of any certainty about the passage of legislation, we believe you should work with local communities to explore how a National Monument designation would protect the archaeological and cultural resources in these two regions. Since the legislation has been carefully crafted to secure broad support, we request that you carefully consider these proposals…”
So, while the El Rio Grande del Norte NCA bill is not moving forward, the possibility of a El Rio Grande del Norte National Monument status
would be fabulous.
I urge you to send a free fax of support for the designation to President Obama here.
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What is El Rio Grande del Norte like?
Well, back in 2007, I wrote this about the area we wish to see protected:
The El Rio Grande del Norte encompasses some of the most spectacular lands in all of New Mexico. The Rio Grande cuts into the Servilleta lava flows that make up the Taos Plateau just above the Colorado border on the north side of Ute Mountain. Eight miles later, at the New Mexico state line, the river is 200 feet down, the gorge 150 feet across. West of Questa, where Big Arsenic Spring bubbles from the rock and pinyon jays heap in the winter, the river is a glinting green ribbon eight hundred feet down. The opposite rim is over half a mile away where, on summer mornings, bald eagles soar southward in pairs. At John Dunn Bridge the river enters The Box, an 18-mile stretch of 900 foot cliffs, famous among boaters.
The El Rio Grande del Norte is also the Rio Grande Migratory Flyway – one of the great migratory routes in the world. Eagles, falcons and hawks make the basalt walls of the Gorge their nesting homes. Ospreys, scaups, hummingbirds, herons, avocets, merlins and willits all traverse the Gorge. The sound of Sandhill Cranes migrating from the San Luis Valley to places like Bosque Del Apache can be deafening while on an October hike in the tablelands west of the river. It’s that western plateau that is perhaps the most wild. From the edge of the Gorge, vast grass and sagebrush mesas intersperse with the forested slopes of volcanic intrusions such as Cerro Chiflo, Cerro del Aire, Montosos and Cerro de la Olla. It is on these mesas where vast herds of pronghorn and elk find winter forage and calve and fawn along the rim late in the spring.
This substantial chunk of wild is bounded by the Gorge Rim on the east and Highway 285 on the west. The northern portion spills over 285, encompassing the broad, gently rolling grass and sage brush plains of the Rio San Antonio Gorge WSA, bisected by yet another gorge where raptors nest in 200-foot high lava walls and conifers clamber down to the Rio los Pinos. Perhaps the crown jewel of this whole area is Ute Mountain, a 10,093 foot high volcanic cone rising nearly 3,000 feet above the surrounding plain. Ute is something you can’t miss. Located about ten miles west of Costilla, it is the dominant feature for those driving north from Taos along highway 522. The steep slopes of Ute are covered in pinyon at the base, as well as pockets of ponderosa, aspen, white pine and Douglas Fir in the higher elevations. From grassy meadows of blue grama, western wheatgrass and Indian ricegrass where the trees thin, the Gorge is a jagged, inky slash dividing Ute from its sister cones to the west. Snow-capped Blanca rises to the north, just across the state line. The whole Sangre de Cristo range falls to the east, terminating, view-wise, at Wheeler Peak……