Hispanic leaders spearheaded the Río Grande del Norte National Monument

  • The Río Grande Gorge, part of the new Río Grande del Norte National Monument.

    Geraint Smith
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....