Rio Grande Gorge bill may benefit migratory birds

People seeking incredible outdoor experiences need not look any further than Northern New Mexico. In-state and out-of-state travelers come here to explore gorges, mountains, plains, rivers and view a variety of iconic wildlife.

Ute Mountain -- which boasts an elevation of over 10,000 feet – and the Rio Grande Gorge -- known as one of the world’s great avian migratory routes -- are considered two “landmarks” in Northern New Mexico. They help define Northern New Mexico as a wildlife haven, particularly for birds. Bird watchers come from all over the country and beyond to enjoy everything from hummingbirds to herons as the area is a major migration route for many species.

These unrivaled natural treasures, and the communities they sustain, are why members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, led by U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, re-introduced legislation to protect these iconic lands and waters. The bill, Río Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act (S. 667/H.R. 1241), was co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), and a House version was introduced by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D, NM-3), cosponsored by Rep. Martin Heinrich (D, NM-1).

The legislation would protect over 21,000 acres of Wilderness within a 236,980 acre National Conservation Area. It would ensure protection of some of the most ecologically significant lands in the state of New Mexico and help secure traditional ways of life in Northern New Mexico for local residents as well as hunters, ranchers, and outfitters.

The Act would protect the upper reaches of the Rio Grande Gorge, where eagles, falcons and hawks nest on the walls of the gorge and numerous species -- including majestic sandhill cranes -- migrate through the area.

Wilderness protection assures the ecological future of these incredible birds, as well as important game species like pronghorn, bighorn sheep and elk.
The legislation would also safeguard world-class recreation opportunities, such as hiking, hunting and fishing. Grazing and vehicle and utility access would continue in already-existing areas, and water rights would not be affected.

Sound familiar? The legislation was first introduced in April 2009, but did not pass before the 111th Congress adjourned.  The Wilderness Society, along with our local partners -- such as New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and New Mexico Wildlife Federation, hunters and anglers, business leaders and outfitters and state and federal elected officials -- applaud these members of the New Mexico delegation for guaranteeing nature lovers everywhere a chance to explore the area, take in the awesome view, and simply breathe in fresh air.

Now that the bill is introduced, it will be referred to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where it could be heard as early as this spring.

The Río Grande Del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act is an exciting step forward for wilderness protection. Protecting these treasured wild lands will benefit the northern New Mexico communities that have enjoyed these lands for generations.

Please take a moment and thank the New Mexico delegation for their leadership on this most important issue!

Photo: the Rio Grande near Taos. Credit: Flickr/Tolka Rover.