Public Lands Day reminds us to be
better stewards of the land
by Rev. Andrew Black and Joseph "Brophy" Toledo

September 23, 2022

This column originally appeared in the Taos News, September 21, 2022.

This Saturday (Sept. 24) is National Public Lands Day. It was established nearly three decades ago to honor and celebrate the deep connection between local communities and the incredible public lands they rely on. All of us who live in the “Land of Enchantment” know that we are blessed with stunning public lands filled with abundant wildlife, remarkable sacred and cultural sites, and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation. The sacred relationship we have to the land, water and wildlife of our public lands shapes who we are as New Mexicans.

The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument monument is home to one of the most intact wildlife migration corridors in North America, where elk, deer, pronghorn and many other species survive and thrive. The area is also filled with ancient Native petroglyphs and prehistoric dwellings. The Rio Grande del Norte offers spectacular recreational activities, including some of the nation’s best hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and whitewater rafting. It’s a terrific example of why it is so important to safeguard our lands and waters so they can be enjoyed by our communities and future generations.

The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument designation happened after many years of collaboration with pueblo and community leaders, sportsmen and women, elected officials and conservationists. It was a process driven by the people who live closest to these lands, rely on them and know them best.

There is a similar community process happening south of the Rio Grande del Norte in an area known as the Caja del Rio or Box of the River. Spanning more than 106,000 acres just outside the city of Santa Fe, this area contains thousands of ancient petroglyphs from the 13th to 17th century. These sacred etchings illustrate the deep connection people have had to these lands and the wildlife since time immemorial. The famed El Camino Real Tiera de Adentro — the longest trade route in North America that ran from Mexico City to Ohkay Owingeh — also runs through the heart of the Caja.

In addition to these historical and cultural treasures, the Caja is home to diverse wildlife, including elk, cougars, bears and a wide variety of migratory birds. As lynchpins of wildlife connectivity that link the mountains and rivers of central and northern New Mexico, the Caja del Rio and Rio Grande del Norte National Monument are essential parts of a continuous and impressive wildlife corridor that runs from Southern New Mexico to Colorado.

Unfortunately, the cultural areas and fragile ecosystems of the Caja are currently threatened by mining and development, poaching, vandalism, illegal dumping, habitat fragmentation and climate change. This is why a broad coalition — including pueblo governors, Hispanic land grant heirs, spiritual leaders, elected officials and outdoor recreationists — have come together to seek permanent protections for this special area. As New Mexicans, we want to make sure that this landscape survives so that future generations can continue to explore, recreate and connect with these remarkable lands. Whether it’s designating the Caja as a national conservation area, traditional cultural property, or national monument, federal action is needed so that the Caja can receive the permanent protection, stewardship and critical resources it so desperately needs and deserves.

Our public lands provide remarkable opportunities for outdoor recreation and learning about the cultural, spiritual and historical values of New Mexico’s diverse communities. However, with great opportunity also comes great responsibility as we are called to be responsible stewards of these spectacular lands. National Public Lands Day provides us all the opportunity to listen and learn from local communities about how they use and steward our public lands, better understand the challenges and threats facing public lands, and get involved in community-led efforts to clean-up, protect and be more responsible stewards of these magnificent lands. New Mexico’s public lands are part of our history and identity. We can’t afford to lose them to development, carelessness or apathy.

Reverend Andrew Black worked to protect the Rio Grande del Norte and Columbine Hondo Wilderness as a staff member for U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Martin Heinrich. He’s the public lands field director for the National Wildlife Federation and a Presbyterian minister in Santa Fe.

Joseph Brophy Toledo, who co-authored this My Turn, is a spiritual leader at Jemez Pueblo and the co-founder and cultural advisor of the Flower Hill Institute.

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