Hispanic leaders spearheaded the Río Grande del Norte National Monument

by Ernie Atencio

In early April, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, R, began pushing a bill that would limit presidential authority to designate new national monuments by forcing proposals to undergo environmental review first. The draft law is among a slew of similar measures House Republicans are working on in response to Obama's March 25 creation of five new national monuments -- two of them in the West. The president's proclamation, Bishop argued, "is an abuse of executive privilege and robs the American people of a fair and open process."

The 1906 Antiquities Act, which grants the president unilateral authority to protect broad swaths of land as monuments, has long stirred controversy in the West, where rural residents often resent federal restrictions on public land that they feel ought to be governed locally. The 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is still a sore point in Bishop's home state because Utah's congressmen and governor were given only 24 hours' notice before its 1996 designation; it also blocked a proposed coal mine. Affected counties were still fighting its management plan in federal court in 2009.

So Bishop might have been surprised by the broad local support for the largest of the new monuments, New Mexico's Río Grande del Norte. Its 240,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land stretch north of Taos to Colorado, and encompass sweeping sage plateaus, 10,000-foot-high mountains and the most dramatic stretch of the Río Grande Gorge. At a celebration in Taos, ranchers, Hispanic land grant heirs and Taos Pueblo tribal officials rubbed shoulders with Earth First! environmental warrior Dave Foreman and outdoor recreationists. Rather than decry presidential meddling, members of New Mexico's congressional delegation touted projected economic growth from tourism, including nearly 300 jobs and $15 million in annual revenue.

Why was Río Grande del Norte so different? The effort to create it started out like any other environmental campaign and could have easily floundered in the divisive dynamics of outside groups pushing an agenda without community input. But here, conservation interests stepped back and listened to local concerns, including from the majority Hispanic population, who, in some cases, had roots in the area going back 400 years. Eventually, the campaign was driven by local Hispanic leaders from bottom to top.

"The proudest moments of my conservation career have been coalition meetings for the Río Grande del Norte, because they truly reflected the multicultural and multiethnic nature of the community," says Michael Casaus, New Mexico director for The Wilderness Society. "I think we learned a lot of lessons that we will be using across the state and across the country."

Proposals to protect Río Grande del Norte have been in the works since the early '90s, when then-Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., introduced a bill to make it a national conservation area. At the time, in a state with a majority Hispanic population, you could count the number of professional Hispanics in the New Mexico conservation movement on one hand. Many rural Hispanics felt that mainstream environmental groups had done little for their communities except restrict their access to critical resources on public land.

When then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., resumed meetings on the issue in 2007 to prepare a bill for 2009, Esther García, current mayor of the village of Questa next door to the monument, emerged as one of its staunchest opponents. The proposal swallowed part of the community's historic land grant, and García and her constituents worried it would hamper their cattle grazing and firewood and piñon-nut gathering, which date back to the 1700s. "We called Washington and told them that without the land grants, it was a no-go," says the 67-year old.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance began helping Bingaman's office with precedent-setting provisions that recognized land-grant rights under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, required grantees be consulted on management decisions and protected traditional land uses. Even so, García's trust proved elusive until the organization tapped John Olivas, a local hunting and fishing guide who studied environmental science, to be its traditional community organizer in 2008.

"If the movement didn't happen within the Hispanic leadership, it wasn't going to happen" in northern New Mexico, Olivas says. "Esther and I spoke the same language." García's brother, who holds a grazing permit on the monument land, and the Board of Trustees of the local land grant slowly came on board; other traditional community members followed. "It took a lot of pots of posole," says Roberta Salazar of the local conservation group Rivers and Birds, who took up the cause in 2008, followed soon after by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation's Max Trujillo.

Meanwhile, The Wilderness Society's Casaus connected the local coalition --now made up of conservationists, recreationists, local government, businesses, land grant and acequia (centuries-old irrigation association) activists, ranchers, and the Taos Pueblo -- with national resources and expertise. Last year, García and local grazing permittee Erminio Martinez testified in D.C., supporting federal protection. Rafting guide Cisco Guevara became a vocal spokesman. Bingaman staffer Jorge Silva-Bañuelos provided critical support; then-Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar became the monument's champion.

"Hispanics have always been conservationists. We care about protecting the land and the water; that's how we survive. But no one has ever paid attention," says García. "Things are changing." Hispanics in New Mexico have begun to take their rightful place in the conservation community, becoming more comfortable expressing environmental values on their own cultural terms. Numerous recent polls show that Hispanics support conservation more strongly than Anglos. That may be because communities of color, especially if low-income, often live closer to polluting industries and power plants, explains Javier Sierra, Sierra Club bilingual media strategist; Hispanics also often care about land and water as part of "profound religious values."

The growing Hispanic demographic is starting to flex its political muscles. The Río Grande del Norte may be an early sign of what that can mean for conservation nationwide. So it was that García, opponent at the outset, ended up in the Oval Office for the formal signing ceremony. "It was," she says, beaming, "a dream come to reality."

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

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