In the halls of Congress yesterday (Dec. 21), the U.S. Senate approved a bill to create wilderness around San Antonio and Ute Mountains in northern Taos and Río Arriba counties.
The Cerros del Norte Conservation Act establishes two new wildernesses within the quarter-million acre Río Grande del Norte National Monument.
Before the wilderness is fully designated, however, the bill must be approved by the House of Representatives and signed into law by the president.
Wilderness areas, unlike a national monument, require Congressional action. Sen. Martin Heinrich introduced the legislation along with New Mexico's other U.S. senator, Tom Udall. Both are Democrats.
The Río Grande del Norte is one of the most spectacular places on earth. New Mexico's community-driven monuments permanently protected iconic landscapes that have long been revered. This legislation will further complete the vision of the diverse coalition and stakeholders who fought so hard to protect the Río Grande del Norte National Monument and will preserve traditional practices and boost New Mexico's growing outdoor recreation economy," said Heinrich.
"Designating the Cerro del Yuta and Rio San Antonio areas as wilderness is a final step toward protecting the Rio Grande del Norte's deep heritage, traditional practice and treasured landscapes that Northern New Mexico and countless visitors have cherished for generations," said Udall in a Thursday (Dec. 21) press release.
Though the lands around the Cerros del Norte have not changed substantially in the past 20 years, the government's willingness to consider it wilderness has.
The bill, S. 432, designates 13,420 acres of wilderness around Cerro del Yuta (Ute Mountain) near Costilla and another 8,120 acres near San Antonio Mountain in Río Arriba County – roughly the same as boundaries proposed in previous versions of this legislation.
New Mexico's senators introduced mostly identical legislation in 2013 and 2015. In February, Heinrich brought the bill to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, of which he is a member. The bill passed that committee in March.
The Senate approved the bill on Thursday by a voice vote, meaning the names and numbers of senators voting are not recorded. "The presiding officer states the question, then asks those in favor and against to say 'Yea' or 'Nay,' respectively, and announces the result according to his or her judgement," according to the Senate.
Heinrich's bill was one of more than two dozen approved by voice vote. Several bills dealt with wilderness, national parks and other public land designations.
The wilderness areas lie within the national monument, which was under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Interior during a review of nearly 30 national monuments, which was ordered by President Donald J. Trump during his early days in office.
The department released the results of that review Dec. 5. Congress was urged to take steps to "examine more appropriate public land-use designations" for the lands within the Río Grande del Norte.