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In the wild sage brush plains of Taos County, New Mexico, Ute Mountain looms. An isolated, free-standing former volcano, Ute Mountain rises nearly 3,000 feet above the surrounding plains, reaching an elevation of 10,093 feet – the highest point on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in the state. It’s a dramatic focal point for a scenic landscape that borders the Rio Grande Gorge.
Located 28 miles north of Taos near the Colorado border, Ute Mountain has maintained its primeval character. Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) hopes it stays this way, so he’s crafted a bill designed to safeguard the area, designating Ute as a wilderness area and preserving nearly 236,000 acres of Taos and Rio Arriba Counties as the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area. These designations will keep open prime hunting and fishing grounds while preserving land for rugged hiking adventures and rafting trips. Congressman Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) has introduced companion legislation in the House.
When the Rio Grande enters New Mexico, the river runs some 200 feet below the rims of its 150-foot wide gorge. From there it plunges deeper, carving out 900-foot high cliffs. But the Rio Grande provides more than stunning cliffs and great recreation: It’s also an important stop along the Rio Grande Migratory Flyway. Eagles, hawks and falcons nest along the gorge, while ospreys, scaups, hummingbirds, herons, avocets, merlins and willits pass through during migration seasons. Sandhill cranes make a boisterous appearance in October, trumpeting their arrival from the north.
Above the river on the edges of the gorge, herds of pronghorn antelope and elk forage during winter before calving and fawning late in spring. And as the land rises toward Ute Mountain, the diversity of habitat increases, creating niches for numerous species beyond the abundant elk populations.
Pinyon covers the base of Ute’s steep slopes, while at higher elevations pockets of ponderosa, aspen, white pine and Douglas Fir dominate the landscape. Ute Mountain sits apart from its sister cones to the west, separated by grassy meadows of blue grama, western wheatgrass and Indian ricegrass and the jagged, inky slash of the Rio San Antonio Gorge.
Ute Mountain is more than just one of the most spectacular sights in all of New Mexico. It’s part of wild land that is important to the culture and heritage of New Mexico. Designating Ute Mountain as wilderness and preserving surrounding lands will ensure that future New Mexicans can explore lands as rugged and natural as those their forbears found centuries ago.