The hallmark of true representation is paying attention to the voices of the people you represent. Last Saturday in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan did just that. These members of Congress took time out of their schedules in Washington to visit a small town in their home state, holding a listening session to hear the voices of their constituents -- and what they heard was highly promising for the prospects of protecting our special places in the West.
The voices of the citizens gathered in Arroyo Seco were clear: They called on their elected officials to support permanent protections for both Rio Grande del Norte and Columbine Hondo, two key landscapes under threat and in need of conservation. It wasn't just conservation groups speaking out either -– it was land grant groups, long-time residents, hunting groups, a grazing permittee, a representative from the mountain-biking community, local mayors, and county commissioners. And each of these local stakeholders spoke passionately about why permanent protection is needed for the special places in their backyards –- and needed now.
The reasons all of these impassioned people spoke out are as diverse as their backgrounds and occupations. Mayor Ester Garcia, of Questa, comes from a family that has been living in the area for centuries. As she spoke to some of the most powerful officials in the state, Mayor Garcia emphasized the importance of cultural uses of the land, from hunting and fishing to herb gathering. We need to "protect wilderness," said Garcia, "so our watersheds are protected for future generations."
Cisco Guevara, owner of Los Rios River Runners and a local business leader with deep roots in the community, declared that "protecting land and water areas such as Rio Grande del Norte and Columbine Hondo would be a boon for local businesses."
Chuck Howe, the president of National Veterans' Wellness and Healing Center, discussed the inherent healing benefits of the land around Taos, especially for those in the program he runs.
To these New Mexicans, preserving these lands means protecting so many things: the creatures that move through them, the stunning landscapes and their holistic benefits, and the jobs and revenue that are created by having visitors flock to your community to see some of the nation's most beautiful wild areas.
Congressman Lujan's message thanking local Sierra Club volunteers for their efforts to protect Rio Grande del Norte and Columbine Hondo
More than just those in attendance want New Mexico's wild places protected: the Sierra Club and coalition partners delivered 22,000 petition signatures requesting permanent protection for Rio Grande Del Norte.
The good news is the legislators got the message. Senator Heinrich ended the meeting by saying, "How impressive this group is. It is incredible. It is moving." He said he is convinced that protection of Rio Grande del Norte and Columbine Hondo "will happen" but may take time. "With this group, there is nothing we can't get done," he stated.
Congressman Lujan emphasized that bringing together groups that in the past did not have common ground is "extraordinary." "Finding a way to feed our acequias -- these veins -- is very important to traditional communities," he stated. "We need to open the floodgates in our minds. There is a lot more of that needed at the federal level."
The broad support in New Mexico for protection of Rio Grande Del Norte is exactly why Udall, Heinrich, and Lujan introduced legislation earlier this month. That bill would protect about 235,000 acres of critical animal habitat, a vital source of water for the entire state, and a heavily visited recreation area. The legislation would also allow for continued grazing, hunting, gathering of firewood, and other traditional uses.
"Getting bills over the crossing line is like going down a river on a raft," Senator Udall stated, referring to the constantly changing landscape one faces. He assured those present that, when it comes to permanent protection for these places, "we will get this stuff done."
The Sierra Club applauds these dedicated leaders for their commitment to these amazing landscapes, particularly Rio Grande Del Norte. While passing such significant legislation in a Congress that seems to be unable to achieve much will be a challenge, their efforts are key to building momentum for permanent protection.
It is a momentum that President Obama can continue with the simple stroke of a pen. Using his power under the Antiquities Act, President Obama can build on this amazing grassroots momentum and ensure that Rio Grande del Norte is protected for generations to come, while also taking a huge step in building his own conservation legacy.
Senators Udall and Heinrich and Congressman Lujan made it clear that they’ve heard the voices of their constituents by supporting protection for these special places. Now President Obama can do the same. That's why we are respectfully asking President Obama to show strong leadership by listening to these diverse voices from across New Mexico and our country –- start your conservation legacy by making Rio Grande Del Norte a national monument. Now is the time.
-- Drew Ball, Senior Representative, Sierra Club Lands Legacy Campaign