TAOS, NM (April 23, 2013) – Senator Tom Udall and Rep. Ben Ray Luján introduced the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act to permanently protect the roughly 45,000-acre Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area. The bill was co-sponsored by Senator Martin Heinrich. The legislation was praised by a coalition of New Mexicans who have been working for years to protect these lands in Taos County.
“My appreciation and love of the land comes from my father and grandfather,” said eighth generation rancher, Erminio Martinez, who grazes in the area. “Our livelihoods depend on this land remaining the way it is. The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act will protect a key water source that individuals, families and businesses depend upon.”
The Columbine Hondo area north of Taos is the last remaining portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to be designated as wilderness. It is crowned by 13 miles of high alpine ridges and peaks that tower above 11,000 feet, including its high point, Gold Hill at 12,711 feet elevation.
“There is no better way to celebrate Earth Day than to protect a place as majestic and incredible as Columbine Hondo,” said Mark Barela, a teacher in Taos.
Elk, mountain lions, black bear, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, pine marten, and Rio Grande cutthroat trout make their home here. This area is a significant clean water source for the central Rio Grande Corridor of New Mexico, supplying water to two of the larger Rio Grande tributaries – the Red River and the Rio Hondo. The area also waters many acequias used by the local agricultural community.
“I want to thank Sens. Udall and Heinrich and Rep. Luján for introducing legislation to protect this incredible place,” said Toner Mitchell, New Mexico public lands coordinator at Trout Unlimited. “Columbine Hondo is known for its outstanding hunting, fishing, hiking and camping. My business and family depends on us all protecting the elk, Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout and bighorn sheep. The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act will do just that.”
Community support for safeguarding the Columbine Hondo is broad and deep. Business owners, ranchers, sportsmen, acequia parciantes, mountain bikers, elected officials, conservationists and others have worked together for years to protect this natural treasure.
"Taos Pueblo thanks our federal delegation for these two Columbine Hondo bill introductions to Congress,” said Samuel G. Gomez, the Taos Pueblo Warchief. “Through these actions, Senator Udall, Senator Heinrich and Congressman Lujan shine as protectors of Mother Earth. This Columbine Hondo Wilderness bill will ensure that these mountains, its waters and forests, are protected for future generations of all species here."
Congress formally recognized the wilderness values and character of the Columbine Hondo area in 1980 and gave it interim protection as a wilderness study area (WSA). Designation as wilderness is the highest form of protection, and bars any development. Former Senator Jeff Bingaman introduced legislation to protect Columbine-Hondo in the 112th Congress, but it stalled along with dozens of other conservation bills. The Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition is hopeful that Congress chooses to lead this year and protects New Mexico’s wilderness.
The mission of the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition is to protect the land, water, values, heritage, culture, and traditions embodied in the lands and communities surrounding the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area by elevating its status to full Wilderness designation.
The Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is a 46,000-acre wild mountain basin, located in the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in Taos County. The Columbine Hondo is a treasured public wild land and valuable natural resource for local residents, ranchers, sportsmen, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy the area for its outstanding natural beauty and opportunities for a wilderness experience.
The Columbine Hondo WSA contains the headwaters of the Rio Hondo and Red River, both major tributaries of the upper Rio Grande in northern Mexico. The pristine creeks and streams of the Columbine Hondo provide surface water for the downstream agricultural communities of Valdez, Arroyo Hondo, Arroyo Seco, San Cristobal, and Questa.
The lush forests and alpine meadows of the Columbine Hondo are home to abundant Rocky Mountain wildlife, such as mule deer, elk, black bear, and mountain lion. Above treeline, New Mexico’s prized herd of bighorn sheep, along with marmots and pica, can be seen in a fragile alpine tundra habitat.
Set aside by Congress in 1980 to be protected for its unique wilderness values and character, the Columbine Hondo is currently managed as Wilderness, by the Carson National Forest. It has been more than thirty years, and the time has come to ensure its permanent protection, by designating the area as wilderness.
There is currently legislation before Congress that seeks to remove protections from hundreds of Wilderness Study Areas across the country. If the Columbine Hondo WSA is not elevated to wilderness designation soon, similar legislation could remove existing wilderness protections, and open this magnificent wilderness area to motorized/mechanized use, energy/mineral development, timber sales, and other forms of development.
Please help to permanently protect the Columbine Hondo Wilderness, for future generations of New Mexicans. Call, write, or email our elected officials and urge them to support wilderness legislation that would permanently protect the entire 46,000-acre WSA, as a designated wilderness area.