With only 11 months left to go in President Barack Obama’s presidency, a host of preservationists and at least a pair of Santa Fe County Commissioners are hoping La Bajada Mesa, with its beautiful vistas and vast open space, will become a national monument—joining other greats in the state like the Aztec Ruins outside of Aztec, the Cliff Dwellings near Silver City, and Bandelier, just outside Los Alamos.
But among all the hurdles that might be ahead, the idea first has to get through more than a few angry ranchers and residents who live in La Cienega and La Cieneguilla.
Not only have they seen their private properties shrink in size over the years by an ever encroaching federal government, but their rights to graze and harvest and hunt have been drastically limited in their government-owned backyard.
Since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president who created the Antiquities Act, the designation of national monuments have all but petrified the legacies of more than a few presidents. Not to be undone or considered any sort of exception, Obama has already signed off on more than a dozen, with three just last week in California's desert area, and he's closing in on Bill Clinton's record-setting 19.
The mesa would be New Mexico's 15th national monument, but first it has to beat out other notable contenders, like Otero Mesa, which has been waiting for a designation since 2012. The region sits in the southeastern part of the state, in an area surrounding by gas and oil drilling.
The proposal also couldn't have come at a more inopportune time, when anti-government hostility among ranchers and cattlemen are running high these days, as evidenced by the recent stand-offs in Oregon and Nevada.
While Santa Fe County's ranchers aren't nearly as radical and are certainly more sensible, that's not to say there is a certain amount of resentment and anxiety when it comes to the federal government, in this particular instance with the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, which together own 120,000 acres under consideration.
"We're in a doughnut hole here," Jose Varela Lopez, a 55-year-old cattle rancher, tells SFR, referring to La Cienega and La Cieneguilla, which butt up against the proposed boundaries, tiny islands in a sea of government property
"I don't know what's going on here or whether this is just one big kumbaya," adds Varela Lopez, who's taken his own personal plight as far as the US Congress, where he testified before a House of Representatives public lands use subcommittee a few years ago. "But whenever I hear the word 'preservation,' I start to worry. In order to preserve something, don't you have to be destroying it first?
"Well, we're not destroying anything out here."
Three weeks ago, he and at least a dozen cattlemen, a few dressed in cowboy boots and leather vests, showed up at a Santa Fe County Commission public hearing to voice their disapproval, and they ultimately convinced the commission to postpone a vote on a resolution that would have endorsed the designation before sending it off to Obama.
The testimony was mixed, however. Ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts implored the commission to think twice and not to act prematurely, as preservationists framed the designation as a win-win situation that would not only protect the land from future development but also bring in hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to the local coffers.
Dianne Elise Strauss, who founded the Coalition to Protect the Gateway several years ago and was the point person involved, was more than disappointed by the delay, saying, "Time is running out," and that the county won't consider it for another 10 weeks.
She says La Bajada Mesa would complete a three-piece jigsaw puzzle that already is blessed with the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in the northern part of the state near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in the south near Las Cruces, both officially named as such under Obama.
"I like to think of it as the Holy Trinity," says Strauss, a private art dealer.
Fact is, it's time to protect the landscape during these turbulent times, Strauss says, where already there's a plan to mine 50 acres of private land in its midst, for its basalt for asphalt. The coalition itself was a defense mechanism that grew out of an opposition to the proposed development of Santa Fe Canyon Ranch, a vast area a portion of which Santa Fe County subsequently purchased.
"If we don't do something now, and fairly immediate, we could lose the land and the beautiful scenery," she said. "Time marches on, things change quickly; we need to make sure this land doesn't fall victim to that."
But ranchers say the land, as it is, doesn't need protection, and that the BLM instituted a resource management plan four years ago to make sure of it. Nothing, for example, can ever occur up on the 600-foot-high mesa, nor in its vicinity. No drilling, no solar power, no wind power, no motorized vehicles along certain roads.
If you don't think the issue is highly political, it is. Commissioner Liz Stefanics, who's running for the state Senate seat formerly held by Phil Griego in the upcoming primaries, addressed the commission after the public hearing, saying, "The last thing that Santa Fe County needs is to be portrayed by major media outlets as not accepting a national monument."
And Commissioner Robert Anaya, who was born and raised in Galisteo, slightly scolded the ranchers, saying that while they may accuse outside forces of being interlopers who are driving the debate, they're the ones who are doing the organizing and coming up with the ideas.
He told the ranchers that just because people aren't from here originally doesn't mean they can't have a voice, and then he asked an important question of the ranchers: Where have they been all this time?
Anaya said he often hopes to look up and spot a few of his friends in the crowd during commission hearings or town halls but that he rarely sees them.
"When I look up, I always hope to see a mirror image of me, looking back at me, but you're nowhere out there," he said. "You always say you're not here, because I'm here to represent you."