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Public News Service – NM | April 2013 

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TAOS COUNTY, N.M. – The future of the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness is the focus of Earth Day-related activity in Washington this week. Three members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have trained their sights on designating the region as a permanent wilderness area.

The wild mountain basin in Taos County, noted for its natural beauty, is also the lifestream of downstream communities. Roberta Salazar, executive director of Rivers and Birds, said the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness provides one of the most critical resources for agriculture in Taos County – water.

“It’s like gold here in this desert state,” she said. “These high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are our rain-catchers for the state. They really have some of the higher precipitation rates in the entire state, and this is the last unprotected wilderness area in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.”

Because legislation in Congress would remove protections from hundreds of wilderness study areas, she said, the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act is an important safeguard for the Taos County region. The new bill still faces its initial committee hearing.

Designating Columbine-Hondo as a permanent wilderness keeps an area valued for water, wildlife and tourism from any unnecessary development, Salazar said, adding that the very survival of the basin could be threatened without permanent protection.

“Industrial development could come in,” she said. “We want to ensure that this mountain is always protected and that the watershed stays intact, because it could mean our survival in the future.”

Stuart Wilde, director and head guide at Wild Earth Llama Adventures, has taken senators and staffers on treks through the area by land and joined with other groups to provide a broader perspective using aerial flyovers.

“When we bring folks up there and we’re looking at the snowpack in the upper elevations,” he said, “it’s really a great way to show people, ‘Look, this is the bank of water that supplies the needs for downstream communities.’ It’s such a valuable tool for conservation, for people to see these places that are either slated for protection or are threatened or endangered in some way.”

The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area provides a significant portion of the water supply for the entire Rio Grande corridor in New Mexico.

Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both D-N.M., reintroduced the legislation, with a companion bill in the House from Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M. The text of the Senate version of the bill is online at scribd.com.

Renee Blake, Public News Service – NM