From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):
President Barack Obama created the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in 2013.
The 242,000-acre monument takes in the Rio Grande Gorge and spreads out across the sagebrush and grasslands of the Taos Plateau before stopping at the Colorado state line.
Now, a Conejos County group is saying he didn’t go far enough.
Conejos County Clean Water has begun a push to expand the monument into Colorado on the rolling hills and mesas that line the west bank of the Rio Grande.
Although the group faces concerns from the San Luis Valley’s water managers and outright opposition from a local commissioner, it believes the expansion would protect many of the land’s current uses and boost tourism.
“More people are inclined to see it and more inclined to visit,” said Michael Armenta, a project coordinator for the group.
Armenta said neighboring Taos County, N.M., did see an uptick in its lodging tax since the creation of the monument.
The monument, as it does in New Mexico, would exist only on lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
“All private lands would remain private,” Armenta said.
But the group hopes to see the monument take in the Punche Valley, the Pinon Hills and Flat Top Mesa.
And they hope to see similar allowances on this side of the state line that allow for hunting, grazing and the harvest of firewood and pinyon nuts.
If the same prohibitions on the monument are extended to the expansion, oil and gas development and mining would be barred from taking place.
Jim O’Donnell, a Pueblo native, lives in Taos and worked on the establishment of the monument in New Mexico.
He now works for the Friends of the Rio Grande del Norte and has explored much of the monument gathering information for the monument’s management plan.
He’s also banged around some of the areas targeted for expansion in Conejos County.
“The landscape is just an extension,” he said. “It’s so similar.”
Those similarities include large expanses of grasslands with pinyon and juniper forests on high points.
Likewise, both sides of the state line include important corridors for wildlife heading between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains.
And both sides of the state line include evidence of prehistoric use in the form of rock art, as well as use by the Hispanic land grant communities that nearly surround the monument.
But Conejos County Clean Water and its allies will have work to do to reach a designation.
Armenta said the group has gathered 350 letters of support, including the backing of three towns in the county.
It has yet to reach out to the state’s congressional delegation.
Moreover, the idea faces staunch opposition from at least one Conejos County commissioner.
“I am 100 percent against it,” Commissioner John Sandoval said.
Sandoval believes there are enough restrictions already on the county’s 501,000 acres of federal land.
He also is uneasy with the process leading to monument designation, noting that during the original push to create the monument, officials at the Department of Interior failed to reach out to Conejos County even though it bordered the monument.
Water managers in the San Luis Valley have also taken notice of the push to expand the monument.
Although the presidential proclamation that established the monument in New Mexico specifically ruled out any reservation of water, valley ocials are not taking for granted that it will be included in any expansion.
“If you declare a national monument, you carry with it the implication of a reservation of water sufficient to fulfill the monument,” David Robbins, an attorney with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said.
He addressed the district’s board Tuesday about a draft letter to the area’s congressional delegation regarding the proposed expansion.
Both Robbins and the district have played a significant role in preserving the primacy of local control over water in the establishment of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge and the creation of national park status for the Great Sand Dunes.
The district also pushed Congress to create the Rio Grande Natural Area, which lines a 33-mile stretch of the river that includes the area targeted for monument expansion.
Robbins suggested the district might be able to cooperate if any potential monument designation would pull back from the Rio Grande and the Conejos rivers, both of which carry requirements to deliver water downstream under the Rio Grande Compact.
But for the time being, the district will keep its concerns clear.
“I think we need to step up and say there are these problems if the monument is proposed to intersect or intertwine with either the Rio Grande or the Conejos, then the water interests in the valley should certainly be willing to oppose the monument in that form,” Robbins said.