For more than a century, visitors have enjoyed the trails, wildlife, waterways, cultural artifacts and history of Bandelier National Monument, a 33,000-acre park in the Jemez Mountains, about 12 miles south of Los Alamos, that gained fame for its ancient cliff dwellings.
In an effort to increase protections for the area’s resources — and to prevent oil and gas developments there — U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich has introduced a bill that would change Bandelier’s status to a national park and preserve.
During a conference call Thursday, the New Mexico Democrat said his measure is “the best way to ensure that Bandelier’s cultural treasures and Northern New Mexico’s history and natural beauty receive … the protection they always deserved.”
The monument, perhaps best known for the centuries-old Pueblo dwellings along the cliffs of Frijoles Canyon, was established in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, who named it after Swiss-American anthropologist Adolph Bandelier.
National monuments are the only lands in the nation’s park system that can be established by a president.
Congress, meanwhile, has the authority to designate a national park and provide the highest level of protection for it.
Heinrich said he was inspired to push for a park designation after camping at Bandelier with his family several years ago — and because of the Trump administration’s recent efforts to slash the size of the recently designated Bear Ears National Monument in Utah.
President Barack Obama created Bear Ears in 2016 to protect sites sacred to Native Americans; the following year, officials in President Donald Trump’s administration proposed reducing it in size by 85 percent to open up lands to grazing, logging and mineral extraction.
A number of entities, including conservation groups and Native American tribes, launched a complaint against the Trump administration to stop the action. The case is still pending. In September, a federal judge rejected efforts by Trump to dismiss the case.
Heinrich called the administration’s effort to reduce Bears Ears “a blatant attempt to open up over a million acres of sacred land to tribes to oil and gas exploration.
“I believe it is illegal,” he added, “but if the courts decide otherwise, we cannot be sure sacred places in New Mexico will not be subject to similar activities.”
Heinrich’s office said his bill has the support of 14 pueblos in the state, a number of conservation groups, local chambers of commerce and State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard.
The bill calls for creation of a tribal advisory commission to ensure the park and preserve “reflects the expertise and traditional and historical knowledge of members of applicable Indian tribes.”
Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. J. Michael Chavarria praised Heinrich’s efforts Thursday, saying Bandelier’s landscape is “a spiritual sanctuary for Santa Clara Pueblo and a place of worships that must be protected now and into the future.”
If Congress approves the bill, Chavarria said, it would remove the threat of gas, oil and mineral extraction from the site. He hopes those in favor of the measure “look to the Creator to give us guidance and courage” in pushing Congress to pass it.
Heinrich said he didn’t think the change in status for Bandelier would lead to a large increase in visitors. “It’s a fairly remote place to visit, even from Santa Fe,” he said. “I do think you will see some uptick.”
According to an online national parks resource portal, between 130,000 and 234,000 people have visited Bandelier each year in the last decade.
Legislation on national lands and parks is “one of those things where you can create some bipartisan compromise [in Congress] and get things done,” Heinrich said. “I am very confident that this is something we can absolutely get done.”
Earlier this year, Heinrich introduced legislation to designate White Sands National Monument as a national park. Congress has to approve a defense spending bill tied to the move because of existing agreements between the U.S. military and the National Park Service to protect military airspace and testing grounds for White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base and Fort Bliss.
Heinrich said Thursday he expects that bill to be approved “as early as the end of the year.”