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IN THE NEWS: Utah's Bishop warns against a presidential designation for N.M.'s Rio Grande

December 18, 2012
In The News

Phil Taylor, E&E News

A leading House Republican yesterday urged the president to exercise caution before designating a national monument to protect a rugged river gorge in northern New Mexico, arguing that the area is under no immediate threat of development.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, said Congress ought to decide whether New Mexico's Rio Grande Gorge and Taos Plateau receive permanent protections.

"This is not the appropriate course that should be taken when considering new policies and land designations that affect so many livelihoods," Bishop said about a presidential designation.

His comments come days after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other agency officials met in Taos, N.M., to gather public input on how to protect the Rio Grande del Norte, a 236,000-acre area marked by volcanic rocks, sagebrush mesas and a stunning river gorge (Greenwire, Dec. 17).

The administration has supported legislation to protect the land as a national conservation area and wilderness, but conservation groups, sportsmen and local business leaders have said a national monument is the most viable path for permanent protections amid a gridlocked Congress.

Sponsors of the legislation, including Reps. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), have made similar calls for the president to consider executive protections.

Under the Antiquities Act, the president needs no approval from Congress to designate national monuments to protect cultural or environmental resources from activities like mining or looting.

But Bishop said the 1906 act was designed to protect areas that face imminent threats and should use the smallest footprint necessary to protect the resource at hand.

"Chairman Bingaman's bill to designate this area failed to advance in his own Democrat-controlled Senate the past two sessions of Congress," Bishop said. "This lack of action and urgency raises the question that the area is not immediately threatened or endangered."

While individual ranchers support the bill, the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association yesterday said it opposes new designations on federal lands. Luján said his bill would protect grazing rights in addition to the traditional gathering of pinyon nuts, wild herbs and firewood.

Monument supporters say that while the area is not threatened by oil and gas development or known mineral deposits, no unprotected land is safe from extractive uses.

In addition, the bill's sponsors have argued that leaders in both chambers have yet to carve out floor time to pass public lands bills. The legislation has passed Bingaman's committee and had a hearing in Bishop's subcommittee.

"We will continue to work to advance legislation in the Senate to conserve these important areas in New Mexico," the senators wrote in an October letter to President Obama urging protections of the Rio Grande and the Organ Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, "but in the absence of any certainty about the passage of legislation, we believe you should work with local communities to explore how a national monument designation would protect the archaeological and cultural resources in these two regions."