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Our Work

By Jackie Jadrnak / ABQ Journal North Reporter
Apr 14, 2013

SANTA FE — Flush with success over President Barack Obama naming the sprawling Río Grande del Norte a national monument last month, wilderness advocates in northern New Mexico aren’t resting on their laurels.

Next up: getting the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area finally made into an official wilderness area.

“The Columbine Hondo is still is limbo. It never should have stayed a study area for 30-plus years,” said John Olivas, a traditional community organizer for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and chairman of the Mora County Commission.

Covering 46,000 acres in a Sangre de Cristo mountain basin in Taos County, Columbine Hondo was named a wilderness study area back in 1980, he said. A report was supposed to be made to the president on the results of the study and recommendations for action by 1986. That never happened.

“Let’s get it into true wilderness and off the plate,” Olivas said.

Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation introduced a bill last year to make that change, but it did not pass. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, met with advocates on Feb. 16 and discussed reintroducing the same legislation soon, according to Olivas.

Udall and Heinrich’s offices confirmed Friday that the two plan to introduce a bill “before the end of the month.”

“Through meetings with local leaders, citizens and advocates, I have heard immense local support for the permanent protection of the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area,” Udall said.

“Like the Rio Grande del Norte, the Columbine Hondo is treasured by the community of northern New Mexico and many years of hard work have been dedicated to ensuring its protection,” Heinrich said, adding that he was honored to work to guarantee “that it remains a treasure for New Mexicans to enjoy for generations to come.”

Rep. Luján, also noting the broad support he has detected in the Taos County and surrounding areas, said, “I have been having conversations with my staff and stakeholders in New Mexico about the possibility of introducing legislation in the House. The current House leadership does not consider wilderness designations a priority; however, I am open to working on a House bill.”

Congress in recent years has resisted putting additional restrictions on land across the nation, and some members have backed an effort to remove protections from all current wilderness study areas. And unlike the monument designation, which President Obama made unilaterally under the Antiquities Act, Congress needs to approve any wilderness designations, Olivas said.

Noting that legislation making Río Grande del Norte a national monument was introduced into four consecutive congressional sessions before Obama acted on it, Olivas said similar efforts will be made to keep pursuing a Columbine Hondo Wilderness Area.

“The drumbeat has to stay going,” he said.

Columbine Hondo’s south end borders part of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, stretching up past Taos Ski Valley to near Red River, back westward beneath Molycorp’s molybdenum mine and down again. According to the website of the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition (www.columbinehondo.org), the area contains the headwaters of the Rio Hondo and Red River, both of which flow into the Rio Grande, and surface water that flows into the acequias in agricultural communities such as Valdez, Arroyo Hondo, Arroyo Seco, San Cristóbal and Questa.

Noting that the Río Grande del Norte is only 20 miles from this mountain area, Olivas said, “The Sangre de Cristo Mountains here are kind of its watershed… It is the sponge of the water that we use.”

Protecting that land “is important to grazing permitees, traditional acequias and land grants,” said Erminio Martinez of Arroyo Seco. “That’s the foundation of these great northern New Mexico traditions that went into effect 400 years ago.”

Following the traditions of his ancestors, Martinez said he grazes 60 head of “mother cows” on land near Taos Ski Valley and Eagle Nest in the summer. The coalition seeking wilderness designation for Columbine Hondo won his support by promising to protect such traditional uses, he said, while acknowledging that some of his peers oppose the wilderness because it would give additional government control over the land.

“If it’s not wilderness, what really concerns me is there’s been a lot of exploitation of this earth by corporations, drilling and abusing it,” Martinez said. Some people in authority want to sell public land to help ease federal debt, he noted.

“These lands are attractive to corporations or foreign countries,” he said. “We need more wilderness in northern New Mexico.”

Carson National Forest has been managing this land since 1980 as wilderness, according to Olivas, but it’s not clear how far its authority stretches in enforcing wilderness rules in study areas. “There is some mountain biking and some motor access,” he said, adding that such use is outlawed in a wilderness.

But he added that the coalition backing wilderness designation has been working with different groups to address their concerns, such as adjusting borders or making other changes to allow for things such as a parking lot for Taos Ski Valley, a wastewater treatment plant expansion for Red River, and designated loops for mountain bikers.

That’s the sort of cooperation and negotiation that resulted in widespread community support for Río Grande del Norte National Monument, and the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition has been doing similar work to bring people together since it formed in 2010, according to Olivas.