FEATURE: The Cerros del Norte Conservation Act
There are several notable bills relating to conservation on the Congressional docket this term. One is the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act, which will hopefully pass before Congress adjourns this year. The bill, introduced by New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall and Representatives Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham, would designate two pieces of land within the existing Río Grande del Norte National Monument as Wilderness.
The Río Grande monument was established in 2013 and makes up 242,500 acres northwest of Taos, New Mexico. The Cerros wilderness bill would further safeguard clean water, wildlife and habitat within the monument’s area.
If passed, 13,420 acres will be designated the new Cerro del Yuta Wilderness, containing the iconic Ute Mountain, and 8,120 acres will become the Río San Antonio Wilderness, containing San Antonio Mountain. Only Congress has the authority to designate these areas as wilderness within the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The Cerros del Norte Conservation Act would ensure that these special areas within the Río Grande del Norte National Monument remain undeveloped and retain their original features. It will enhance outdoor recreation, ensure that livestock grazing can continue, and it benefits New Mexico’s rural way of life.
The bill makes clear that it does not establish protective perimeters and buffer zones around the protected areas. Essentially, activities outside the protected areas, even if they can be seen/heard within the protected area, will not be affected by the bill. The bill also clarifies that the establishment of these protected wilderness areas does not affect New Mexico’s jurisdiction over fish and wildlife located on public land in the state.
Another important note within the bill emphasizes the land in the proposed wilderness areas will be withdrawn from use under existing public land laws for purposes such as mining, geothermal leasing, or mineral leasing. However, it does not expand, shrink, or in any way modify any existing valid treaty rights.
Where the Bill is in the Congressional Process
The Cerros del Norte Conservation Act was first introduced in the United States Senate in February of 2017 and was reviewed by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and passed the Senate without amendment in December of 2017. The bill was then presented to the House. It was sent to the Natural Resources Committee first, and then the Federal Lands Subcommittee in January of this year, where it currently remains under review.
However, the bill has been decades in the making. The effort to preserve lands within the Rio Grande del Norte area has been supported by veterans, small business owners, sportsmen, ranchers and grazing permitees, and local elected officials. The bill has received the overwhelming support of New Mexicans.
Expected Effects of Implementation
In their analysis of the bill, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources estimated the proposed changes will have zero impact on the national budget, which of course is a significant asset.
The proposed wilderness areas have beneficial implications on local wildlife. One example is additional protection available for birds, as the proposed wilderness areas fall within an important avian migration route. Other species such as pronghorn and elk live within the proposed areas, and thus will be better protected as well.
This legislation also helps to further protect recreational opportunities already available within the larger national monument, such as hiking, hunting, and fishing. Locals especially support this bill due to their belief that the wilderness designation will boost economic development and local business success in the surrounding area. There was a 40% increase in visitors to the area, and a 21% increase in the nearby town of Taos Lodger’s Tax Revenue one year after the Río Grande del Norte National Monument was initially created. According to one 2014 study, the broad effects of “quiet recreation” on BLM lands generated $173 million dollars and supported 1,712 jobs across New Mexico that year.
Floyd Archuleta, a rancher from El Prado, said about the bill when it was introduced in the House, “The livestock our ranch depend on the water that is safeguarded by the wildest places within the Río Grande del Norte National Monument. In addition to sustaining our family, we see hunters, fisherman, and other folks come to experience all that the national monument has to offer, and wilderness plays a big part of that.”
This is the kind of bill that Americans can support regardless of their party affiliation. It is the kind of legislation that may seem rare in today’s partisan political environment: the kind that is delightfully refreshing in its simplicity, unmistakable in its significance, and unifying in its goals. To support this bill’s passage, contact your representative and spread the word about this bill’s importance to those in your circle of influence.
The American Conservation Coalition fully endorses this legislation and urges Congress to act on it immediately.
Meghan Miller is a recent graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, where she studied Corporate Leadership. She plans to pursue a law degree in the near future.