Meditations on the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area
The grass and sagebrush tablelands of the Taos Plateau are exceptionally large - hundreds of thousands of acres in size, in fact. If you toss in the entire San Luis Valley - and you should - to round out the full and complete ecosystem, you’re talking well over a million acres. It would take you five hours to drive its length. That’s five hours of no potty breaks forget the coffee don’t look at the birds driving. That’s a lot of driving.
These tablelands consists of vast mesas of blue grama grass and sagebrush tinted light green. The view is broken only by the interspersing forested slopes of volcanic intrusions. Cerro Chiflo, Cerro del Aire, Montosos, Cerro de la Olla and Ute Mountain. It is on these mesas where vast herds of pronghorn and elk find winter forage and calve and fawn along the rim late in the spring. The whole plateau is bisected by a river, the Rio Grande.
Lobatos Bridge marks the beginning of the Rio Grande Gorge, a vast canyon that slices the northern third of New Mexico. The bridge can be found in Colorado where the big river begins its cut into the Servilleta lava flows that make up the plateau. Eight miles later, at the New Mexico state line, the river is 200 feet down, the gorge 150 feet across. West of Questa, where Big Arsenic Spring bubbles from the rock and pinyon jays heap to fiddle in winter racket, the river is a glinting green ribbon eight hundred feet down. The opposite rim is over half a mile away where, on summer mornings, bald eagles soar southward in pairs. At John Dunn Bridge the river enters The Box, an 18-mile stretch of 900 foot cliffs, famous among boaters. Visibility from the rim? Hundreds of miles.
This is big, wild land.
There are people here too. Decedents of the land grantees run cattle on both sides of the river. Lupe, Esther, Dan, Rudy, Tony, Roberto, Palemon…people and wildlands are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Late in April, I scrambled through the pinyon and juniper along the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge well above the John Dunn Bridge. The air was already hot despite the late winter snow that had fallen the week before. I was accompanied by a local ornithologist; a lanky, grey bearded autodidact who specialized in raptors and cried when he saw the stakes for new house that was to be built on the rim of the gorge. His name was Ron. We were looking for a nest; a particular golden eagle nest that was rumored to be over two-hundred years old. “You gotta see this, man. One of the biggest nests I’ve ever seen.”
This is also the Rio Grande Migratory Flyway – one of the great migratory routes in the world. Eagles, falcons and hawks make the basalt walls of the Gorge their nesting homes. Ospreys, scaups, hummingbirds, herons, avocets, merlins and willits all traverse the Gorge. The sound of Sandhill Cranes migrating from the San Luis Valley to places like Bosque Del Apache can be deafening while on an October hike in the tablelands west of the river.
In the early 1990s, then Congressman Bill Richardson launched a plan to protect approximately 600,000 acres of this land under a National Conservation Area designation. The proposal covered only the New Mexico side of the state line. To that end, Richardson convened a council of local interests (environmental, ranching, business, sportsmen) who were tasked with the creation of a Congressional bill that would suit the needs of Taos County. A year later, the idea was dead. By all accounts, the environmental community stabbed itself in the back. Infighting and greed got the better of the proposal and the Richardson understandably backed away.
It was a devastating conservation loss.
Considering the recent change in Congress, a conservation-minded local BLM manager and a Senator eager for a conservation victory, Ron and I had new hope that the NCA designation idea would rise again.
“Wait here,” I was told and Ron donned his knee pads, secured his binoculars and dropped into the opuntia and sage, crawling slowly towards the gorge. “I don’t want to spook them.”
Our proposal is slightly more than half of what could have been gained seventeen years ago. It is, nonetheless, incredibly ambitious.
The new proposal, which we have been calling the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area, would encompass most of the northern portion of Taos County and a small portion of Rio Arriba County. It would include two new Wilderness areas: Ute Mountain and the Rio San Antonio Gorge, together totaling nearly 25,000 acres. The NCA designation would prohibit mining or mineral development on public lands within the boundary. It would be a barrier to the Taos sprawl. It would limit motorized travel to designated routes. It would ensure and encourage proper ecosystem management. It would also protect so-called “traditional uses” of the area: ranching, permitted wood gathering, hunting, fishing, rafting and so on. Finally, creation of the NCA and associated Wilderness would give the small communities on its borders a natural attraction and resource to use as part of a long-term sustainable economic development plan.
Senator Jeff Bingaman is set to introduce the bill sometime in May 2007.
Looking into the Gorge, I realized that I’d passed this spot the summer before – and hadn’t see any eagle’s nest. Which didn’t mean anything. I’d been much too focused on the water.
Early one morning in late July I’d set off from my house, fly rod in hand, and passed along a dirt-road that terminated at the rim. The day was wet and cool and every roof top and gate post hosted a Say’s phoebe that darted at the bugs keep low by the incoming monsoons. A feast was under way.
It was one of those days when you forget what you are doing.
The first mile was fairly straight forward. I scrambled down several hundred feet to the river bank and set off north over silky, water-smooth lava rocks and through the sedges and brambles of mountain mahogany that lined the water. There were deer tracks in the sand. A muskrat worked his way through a pool and up onto a jumble of black boulders. Looking south, you could see the place where the river met the sky. Soon the bridge was gone from sight. Thunder rumbled to the west but in the narrow strip above, there was nothing but blue. Violet-green swallows mixed with cliff swallows to cut the air like a swarm of bees. The descending chirp of the rock wren was omnipresent. A spotted towhee sat on a rock.
The river narrowed and splashed over a small spill of stones. I stepped out onto a riffle and began casting upstream, trying to land my fly just beyond the rocks that pillowed the water in the middle of the river. I hooked two small rainbow trout, released them then moved upstream – where I fell face first into a shallow pool.
I have a particular issue with falling. I slip off rocks, tumble into streams and slide from trails. Once, I was walking on a straight and true gravel road and, inexplicably, found myself lying in a side ditch in an inch of water. Thus far, I’ve escaped serious injury. I hooked a few more rainbows and one brown trout. All were stocked fish from the Red River fish hatchery and none were big enough to keep.
Slipping down a grass embankment, I stumbled across a sand bank and took a break next to a hundred foot tall Ponderosa as the sky darkened.
When the monsoons come to northern New Mexico, they come with a fury. Thunder rattled off the canyon walls. The wind powered from north to south. I scrambled underneath a rock cove as rain poured down. It takes about five minutes after the rain begins for the waterfalls to flow. These canyons and ravines channel the water that falls on the rim and suddenly hundreds of gallons of water come spilling into the canyon in silvery threads.
Lightening creased the sky. The thunder was deafening. Then it was gone. It rained twice more that day.
I ate lunch and continued north.
Like I said, it was the kind of day when you forget what you are doing. By late afternoon I found myself miles up the gorge. Turning back would mean an hours long stumble the final miles home in the pitch black. I located a deep side canyon and climbed east through thick stands of juniper and pinyon, aiming towards the highway.
On the rim with Ron, I got the wave. I approached slowly, crawling through the dirt on my belly. I left a juniper between myself and the nest. Ron alternately slowed then waved me forward until I was just above the nest. I glassed the basalt and the two eaglets huddled in the nest. They weren’t small.
Eagles are well known for large nests measuring several feet across and this one was no different. They often use the same nest year after year – adding a new layer of green. By counting these layers, one could theoretically determine the age of the nest. This one was, Ron said, about two-hundred years old. A newborn baby golden eagle weighs only about 3 ounces. But these two were the size of chickens. Both of the parents help to feed the eaglets but we couldn’t see them.
“Momma knows we’re here,” said Ron. “Goldens are territorial it is possible for a pair to maintain their 100 square mile for near a lifetime of 25-30 years. They’re incredible, man.”
“Has the population maintained?” I asked. Ron would be the one to know. He’d been tracking the birds for nearly thirty years. “No.” was his simple answer.
Ron explained that, in the early 1990s, these birds had taken a terrible hit. In the spring of 1987 Ron knew of roughly twelve pair of territorial golden eagles in they valley. That is around 24 birds. “That population after nesting season with fledges could be as many as 40-50,” he explained. “Unfortunately, in 1990, there was a US Fish and Wildlife Service 'sting'. An undercover agent was put in Fort Garland, Colo. in ’87 as a taxidermist. He emerged three years later in Costilla with 250 commando style warrants. But nobody did any time. Their defense of entrapment rang true to the judges. What Fish and Wildlife did was essentially create a market for dead raptors that did not previously exist. The final toll was 117 dead eagles in evidence bins. What was worse was that in the spring of ‘91, I could only locate 3-4 adult Golden eagles from the previous years average around 20-25. A massacre.”
Then there were the houses. In the afternoon, we drove twenty miles north to Ute Mountain. Perhaps the crown jewel of this whole area, Ute is a 10,093 foot high volcanic cone rising nearly 3,000 feet above the surrounding plain. It’s something you can’t miss. Located about ten miles west of Costilla, it is the dominant feature for those driving north from Taos along highway 522. The steep slopes of Ute are covered in pinyon at the base, as well as pockets of ponderosa, aspen, white pine and Douglas Fir in the higher elevations. From grassy meadows of blue grama, western wheatgrass and Indian ricegrass where the trees thin, the Gorge is a jagged, inky slash dividing Ute from its sister cones to the west. Snow-capped Blanca rises to the north, just across the state line in Colorado. The whole Sangre de Cristo range falls to the east, terminating, view-wise, at Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point.
Again, we bellied up to the rim of the gorge and glassed a nest just over the inside Colorado. A small, blue-roofed house sat in the grass and sage next to the rim. A nest spilled down the basalt on the western side.
“Man…” Ron mumbled, his eyes moistened, “over the years, I’ve seen more than one-hundred falcons raised in that nest, man. I don’t know, just a really productive pair of parents. They’re just going for it, man. But since that house went in, they haven’t nested once. I haven’t even seen them in two years.”
When the Spanish first rode into these table lands over four hundred years ago, they described rolling hills of auburn grass that came up to the stirrups of mounted horsemen. The streams were many. The wildlife abundant. One-hundred years ago, Aldo Leopold said of New Mexico: it is “the cream of creation.”
Most of the rolling hills and swales of grass are now gone, replaced by endless stands of sage. Wildlife populations have dropped and many of the speckled mesas and hills have been sacrificed to economic development and motorized recreation. Sprawl creeps north from Taos and the rancher can barely make a living.
The land within the proposed NCA represents some of the last, best places in the state, the places most remnant of those early accounts.
Some ask: “why Wilderness?” The answers are endless. Species and ecosystem security, watershed protection, sanctuary for cultural and archaeological resources, economic development and opportunities for silence and solitude are principal considerations. It can be honestly said that Wilderness is a stop-gap, a place-holder, a tool to preserve the most vital of places while we wait, and work towards man’s inevitable rapprochement with the natural world.
Copyright 2007 Jim O'Donnell • Used with permission