Coalition Pushing for Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Designation

Mar 20, 2012

For the last several years a diverse coalition has been working quietly to lay the groundwork for a new Wilderness Area near Taos.  With New Mexico’s senior Senator and long-time wilderness advocate, Jeff Bingaman, set to retire soon, the group recently took its campaign public.  KUNM’s Conservation Beat reporter Sidsel Overgaard headed north to find out more.

There will be a fight in this story, but maybe not where you expect it.  And it’s certainly not going to start with this furry guy.

 “K2 is a 12 year old pack llama” said Stuart Wilde, K2’s person who’s been leading llama treks here in the Carson National Forest for 20 years.

While K2 munches on a tuft of dry grass, Wilde unfolds his map with a bit of a struggle in the spring wind. Wilde traces his finger around a roughly 8 by 11 mile oval-the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area. When this was designated a Wilderness Study Area, or WSA, in 1980 it was with the assumption that Congress would decide within a few years whether or not to award it full Wilderness status.  Thirty years later, that’s yet to happen, and Columbine-Hondo hangs in legislative limbo. Finally we arrive at our final destination: Columbine Creek. Ah- you think.  Water in the desert.  Here comes the fight.  Nope.  This is maybe the strongest force bringing people together around Columbine-Hondo.

“This is valuable natural resource for the downstream communities. They use this water for agriculture, grazing, irrigation-things like that. I think that people have come to understand that the best way to protect your water is to protect the mountains here where it comes from,” said Wilde.

“My name is Erminio Martinez. I was born and raised here in Taos County, Arroyo Seco. I still live on the land that my grandfather, Juan de Dios, was able to sustain his 15 children that he raised, even before New Mexico became a state.”

Erminio Martinez can’t quite see the mountains of the Columbine-Hondo from his home, but in the summer he’s up there at least once a week.   

“It’s a beautiful piece of the planet up at the ski valley. You see the lakes, the bighorn sheep, elk, bear, and you see my livestock. You know, grazing”

Ah ha!  First an environmentalist—now a rancher.  Let’s get ready to rumble! Martinez has about 60 “mama cows” grazing in Columbine-Hondo every summer but despite what you might think, a Wilderness designation would not change that. Sure, Martinez is the first to admit that, historically the relationship between ranchers and environmentalists has been rocky.

“We’ve become a very untrusting I guess, culture. We can’t trust anyone it seems.”

But in this case, protecting the Columbine-Hondo is key to protecting his way of life and Martinez talks with a twinkle in his eye about a granddaughter who already loves to go riding with her grandpa in the mountains.

“I’m just hoping that she maintains that tradition that’s come down for over 400 years,” said Martinez.

“I don’t think the environmentalists really understand the land grant and the land grant issues”said Esther Garcia, the mayor of Questa and an 11th generation New Mexican. “The people that owned the common lands, the people of the land grants really have been the environmentalists. I don’t think anyone wants oil or gas drilling in those mountains. You know, people hike those mountains they hunt and that’s why also we need to protect the hunting rights, the fishing, the herb gathering-the traditional things that my people do”

All things that would be protected under the Wilderness Act and even though Garcia says that in the past, she’s felt left out of environmental campaigns this time was different. She remembers a phone call from Roberta Salazar.

“My name is Roberta Salazer and I direct a nonprofit, Rivers and Birds in Taos, New Mexico.

Coming from a multi-generation New Mexico family herself, Salazar knew what had to be done.

“Right off the bat we involved our livestock permittees from that wilderness and and grant people and Asequia people and some of the old timers and traditional people and it’s just been an amazing process”

Referencing the uniqueness of this coalition coming together to support a wilderness designation something like this almost unimaginable collaboration from traditional enemies, like lions laying down with lambs-whoever the lamb is doesn’t matter. And it’s been going on quietly over bowls of posole, for three years.

“Part of the process was just being together as human beings instead of just activists at first. Just sitting down for a meal. You know, just being muy jente with each other. That’s important.”

Now, in addition to having the support of the land grants heirs, Acequia assocations, and livestock permittees, the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness coalition has amassed more than 300 letters of support from local businesses, nonprofits and governments. Pretty much everyone.  Pretty much.

“That’s the evolution. That’s the 5 inch travel 29er. It’s a small frame” said Doug Picket, owner of Taos Cyclery, where pristine, Nobby-tired mountain bikes wait patiently for someone to take them out and muddy them up. And here’s your throw down.  While mountain biking is not allowed in WSAs, due to a weird glitch in the federal code, it’s a rule that can’t be enforced until Columbine-Hondo becomes a Wilderness Area.

“Very confusing so there’s never been signs. There’s never been something that said no mountain biking allowed”

So the mountain biking happened, trails were born, and now a few members of the biking community are loathe to give them up-not only for themselves, they say, but as potential lures for mountain biking tourists. Mountain bikers say the wilderness boundaries could be changed to exclude the bike trails. Or they suggest designating a fifth of Columbine-Hondo as a National Recreation Area instead. Wilderness advocates say changes like that would just prolong the entire process and, they say, time is running out.

“Time running out.  Now that’s something that gets our attention also is that trying to hurry and rush something through that’s going to last forever. This is permanent. That always is a concern.”

Nonetheless, the pressure may be real.  A House bill cosponsored by New Mexico Representative Steve Pearce would release up to a million acres of Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico alone and that could include parts of Columbine-Hondo. But if Columbine-Hondo advocates really want to get wilderness legislation through a gridlocked Congress before Senator Bingaman retires it will have to be shimmering with bipartisan support which is why advocates like Michael Casaus with the Wilderness Society bristle at the suggestion that Columbine-Hondo has become controversial.

“I don’t think that a handful of people voicing their opinion is necessarily controversial” said Casaus.

Plus, he says, the coalition has the support of over 100 mountain bikers who see the Wilderness designation as more important than a few trails.

“In our view an in the view of the coalition to protect columbine Hondo there is no controversy. There’s overwhelming public support and that’s it.

A spokeswoman for Senator Bingaman says he is actively working on legislation to protect Columbine-Hondo.  And while he’s aware of the mountain bike issue, she says, it’s just one of the many things that goes into writing legislation like this. 

Click on K2, above, to see more photos from Sidsel's trip!  And learn about other NM public lands legislation pending in Congress on our blog: earth air waves

Funding for KUNM's Conservation Beat comes from the New Mexico Community Foundation.