By Jim Mathews
Touring the Rio Grande del Norte
In late January, I traveled to New Mexico for a series of meetings with folks working on public lands and wilderness campaigns in the Land of Enchantment. The first stop was Taos and the village of Arroyo Seco in the northern part of the state—home to two very active campaigns: Rio Grande del Norte and the Columbine Hondo. Although I have worked on both efforts for several years, this was the first chance I had to see these special wild lands, which also have a rich and thriving cultural heritage.
I dedicated a full day to touring the Rio Grande del Norte with two of the local coalition members—Roberta Salazar, executive director of Rivers & Birds, and John Olivas of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. We were joined by John’s 12-year old son, who had the day off from school because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
The Rio Grande del Norte is a stark landscape of high desert punctuated by the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge that winds its way through these lands, bracketed by two major volcanic mountains that rise up from the plains—Ute Mountain and San Antonio Mountain. In addition to appreciating the striking beauty of the land and the Rio Grande River, as a birder, I was pleased to have several arresting views of red-tailed and rough-legged hawks during our trek. The Rio Grande Gorge is along one of the world’s great flyways for many migrating species of birds, including hawks and Bald Eagles.
At several spots along our tour of the Rio Grande del Norte, we also had wonderful views of the majestic, forested Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which include the 46,000-acre Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area.
Locals and visitors alike treasure these wild public lands, which contain rich forests, meadows, and unique alpine tundra above the tree line. The Columbine Hondo area also shelters the headwaters of the Rio Hondo and Red River, both major tributaries of the upper Rio Grande, serving as major sources of water throughout the state.
The meeting on the Columbine Hondo wilderness initiative the following day brought together an energetic group of people—local business owners, elected officials, Native peoples, sportsmen, and community, state, and national conservation organizations. Working together, we have developed a proposal to designate much of the Columbine Hondo as wilderness. Legislation was introduced during the last Congress by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Tom Udall (D-NM), but the measure was not passed before Congress adjourned. We expect Sen. Udall and New Mexico’s new junior senator, Martin Heinrich (D), to continue the drive to safeguard this spectacular place by reintroducing the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Act early this year.