Stuart Wilde has spent a couple hundred days each year of the last 25 trekking into the canyons along the Rio Grande, where burnt-black volcanic rock soars for hundreds of feet overhead. Often, pack teams of rescued llamas trail him, and he’s pointing out petroglyphs for tourists hiking along. These desert canyons descend from the gnarled piñon and prickly pear at the rim, into an increasingly verdant landscape laced with ponderosa pines and frequented by great blue herons and bighorn sheep. The natural landscape is riddled with Native cultural sites, remnants from Spanish settlers and conquistadors, even traces of settlements from Dust Bowl-era homesteaders.
"You can't have a natural experience in Rio Grande del Norte without having a cultural experience," he says.
For four years, he’s been able to say that his work—showing people the place itself, as well as driving loops around the Enchanted Circle’s highways near Taos to talk about the area’s historic and biological significance—helped secure the gorge protections for generations to come. That preservation came into question at the end of April, when the president announced a sweeping review of national monuments from the last 20 years, including Rio Grande del Norte, designated by former President Barack Obama in March 2013.
The first glimpse of what that review will entail was issued on June 12 in a statement from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees national monuments, parks and other public lands. He suggested shrinking the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument, created by Obama in December to protect areas of cultural significance to five tribes in the Four Corners area. That monument was targeted first, while the public comment period on the idea of revising 22 total monuments, Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces among them, concludes July 10. The executive order argues the review is necessary because these monuments did not see adequate public outreach prior to their creation.
"That rhetoric just doesn't square with the facts," says Kate Kelly, who runs the Center for American Progress public lands program and served as a communications director for the Interior Department during the Obama administration.
Local communities were asked whether a monument was the right path forward, and what that monument should look like, she says. As a result of that input, their boundaries and size shifted. Bears Ears is half a million acres smaller than what the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition suggested. So, too, was Rio Grande del Norte downsized to less than half its original proposal. Rules for each monument were drafted to allow ongoing access for historic users, including tribal members gathering herbs or firewood, and ranchers grazing their cattle.
Wilde spent a recent morning driving to nearby towns, picking up letters of support from mayors to send with a packet of the historic comments that make the case for the monument's future. He was a conservationist even as a kid, helping start a curbside recycling program in the New York suburb where he grew up. Drawn west in the '80s, his life took root in New Mexico as a wilderness guide and outdoor educator.
"As part of the obligation of being an outdoor recreation professional, there's an ethic involved in protecting the areas that I bring people into," Wilde says.
Efforts to protect the Rio Grande Gorge have been underway since 1968, when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed and the Rio Grande was among the first rivers to receive that designation. The gorge has been considered for a national conservation area as well, but that effort shifted with the political tides to a national monument campaign. The movement's ranks included backpackers, ranchers, anglers and hunters alongside conservationists—outdoors enthusiasts of all stripes—who had merged first to defend Valle Vidal from proposed oil and gas development, and reconvened to fight for the Rio Grande Gorge, Wilde recalls.
"It was really a pretty magical campaign," he says. "Everybody got together to stand up for this amazing natural and cultural resource."
As part of his efforts, he took members of Congress into the canyon, llamas in tow, hoping to translate DC staffers' sentiments about saving the planet into intelligence about a place from on-the-ground experiences of its beauty.
Since the monument was created, he's seen visitors increase, and those dollars ripple out to local hotels and restaurants.
"Conservation here in New Mexico is part of a model of sustainable economic development that isn't necessarily a crash and burn, develop for energy or this or that, and then leave the area a Superfund site," he says. "This is something that future generations of New Mexicans and Americans can benefit from."