MARQUEZ WILDLIFE AREA – Theresa Pasqual is eager to get reacquainted with the land east of Mount Taylor where her ancestors hunted and held traditional ceremonies.
The Acoma Pueblo Historic Preservation director said she feels that a state project that has opened 54,000 acres of land to the public will allow more people to connect to a “very special place.”
“To know the land deeply and intimately requires time and patience,” Pasqual said. “As pueblo people, we are people of the land.”
Pueblo leaders, state officials and conservation groups gathered at Laguna Pueblo on Wednesday to commemorate New Mexico’s acquisition of the L Bar Ranch properties.
The group also toured the land that is now part of the New Mexico Game and Fish Marquez Wildlife Management Area – now the state’s largest.
Leaders tout the project as a monumental conservation victory that opens vast swaths of undeveloped and ecologically important land to the public.
At the commemoration event, Laguna Middle School drummers performed songs in the Keres language.
Laguna Pueblo Gov. Martin Kowemy Jr. said the project is a result of the state’s consultation with tribes.
Acoma and Zuni governors, along with All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman Mark Mitchell, also attended the event.
“It is a time for celebration,” Kowemy said.
The Trust for Public Land helped negotiate the sale from private ownership to the state.
Ranch real estate firm Chas S. Middleton and Son sold the two ranches for $34.1 million.
State Game and Fish money from hunting and fishing licenses, and equipment sales helped fund the majority of the purchase.
Grants and loans from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Trust for Public Land pushed the sale over the finish line.
Blooming with fresh greenery from recent rain, the expanded wildlife area boasts a dramatic, remote landscape.
High mesas and volcanic cones tower over narrow canyons.
Valleys of trees and grassland stretch for miles.
The rocky cliffs above the sweeping landscape offer clear views of both Mount Taylor and the Sandias.
Elk herds roam the land year-round, along with black bear, mountain lion and migratory birds.
New Mexico Rep. Nathan Small remembers hunting turkey as a child with his grandfather near Mount Taylor.
The Las Cruces Democrat, vice chair of the House Appropriations committee, advocated for state money to fund the L Bar purchase. He referred to the project as a “locked door that has now forever been opened” for outdoor recreation and tribes.
Game and Fish is surveying the property’s wildlife, habitat and cultural sites.
The inventory will help the agency craft a management plan for public access.
As private land, the ranches were used for hunting and cattle grazing.
Now, they will be open for such activities as hunting and hiking.
The project gives equitable outdoor opportunities to communities that have had limited access for generations, said Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
“We now have access to this place … to carry on traditions that have existed in New Mexico forever,” he said.
The newly public area connects to the Cibola National Forest and Laguna Pueblo, and borders a portion of the Continental Divide Trail.
Game and Fish does not yet know when the full plan will be finalized.
But wildlife management division chief Stewart Liley said the expanded state property could be open for hunting as soon as the fall of 2023.
The Marquez has summer and winter ranges for the Mount Taylor elk herd.
The state agency wants to restore the area’s mosaic grassland habitat and boost elk numbers.
“One of the big things the department wants to work on, too, is restoration of the pronghorn population,” Liley said.
The ranches have water wells and drinking troughs used for cattle, and Game and Fish will likely adapt that water infrastructure for wildlife.
Fencing on the property’s interior will be removed to promote unfragmented habitat.
“Our goal is how do we build in access that is compatible with ensuring we have healthy wildlife populations?” Liley said.
Game and Fish is hiring a full-time manager who will live at the site northwest of Albuquerque.
About half the ranchland is within the Mount Taylor Traditional Cultural Property, and the area has significance for dozens of tribes and pueblos.
“It’s really important to identify all the shrines and sites that are out here,” Kowemy said.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich is seeking federal funding for an ethnographic study of the new state land.
The New Mexico Democrat knows the landscape well from his work as a hunting guide.
He applauded conservation groups for accomplishing a project that many federal policymakers said “couldn’t be done.”
The land acquisition was more than a year in the making – a relatively short time for a property that sprawls across three counties.
“If you look at the public land around Mount Taylor, this was kind of a hole in that, but now it really ties habitat together, from low-elevation winter and (elk) calving habitat all the way to the high elevation that sits on top of the mesa,” Heinrich said during the property tour. “It really completes a puzzle.”
Heinrich said the state is “on the forefront” of diverse public land projects that include tribal voices and traditional knowledge.
“It sort of sets a die for other communities around the country who are trying to figure this stuff out,” he said.
The L Bar project fits well into New Mexico’s goals to conserve 30% of all lands by 2030.
The state’s 30×30 plan aims to preserve natural resources threatened by a changing climate.
More land in public hands is also important for the state’s growing outdoor recreation economy, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said at the event.
She added that tribal governments and local communities have valuable expertise in how to manage local natural resources.
“It’s going to be the only project in the country that has this kind of partnership, and this kind of clear respect aimed at our sovereign nations,” Lujan Grisham said. “And they are absolute partners in making sure New Mexico continues to hold its heritage and protect these lands for future generations, and to do that forever.”