WASHINGTON, D.C. - A bill introduced by U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) to establish two wilderness areas, the Cerro del Yuta Wilderness and Rio San Antonio Wilderness, within the Río Grande del Norte National Monument northwest of Taos, New Mexico, received a positive hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining.
In his opening statement, Senator Heinrich, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said that the bill "helps further the community‘s vision for this landscape." He also recognized former U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) for originally introducing similar legislation.
During the hearing, Senator Heinrich also highlighted the support for the bill from small business owners in northern New Mexico and how revenue increases, due to the Río Grande del Norte National Monument designation, have helped boost the local economy. Visits to Taos and lodging taxes have increased because of the monument designation in 2013.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Acting Assistant Director for National Landscape Conservation System and Community Partnerships Tim Murphy, who testified before the committee in support of the bill, said, "There's been a 40 percent increase in visitation to the Taos area based on the monument designation and 30 percent increase in lodging taxes. Folks coming in are procuring guide services, buying outdoor equipment, clothing and so forth, and generally bolstering the economics of the Taos area based on the visitation to the monument."
Senator Heinrich received assurance from the BLM that hunting and finishing within the monument would continue if the proposed landscapes become wilderness areas.
"The northern New Mexico community has dedicated years of hard work to permanently protect the Río Grande del Norte, and the grassroots collaboration among local stakeholders is a testament to their commitment to preserving the area's treasured landscapes and heritage for future generations," said Sen. Udall. "Designating the Cerro del Yuta and Rio San Antonio areas of the Río Grande National del Norte National Monument as wilderness will help permanently protect a critical watershed, boost tourism and create jobs throughout northern New Mexico, and ensure this incredible part of our state is protected for New Mexicans and visitors alike."
The two proposed wilderness areas will comprise 21,420 acres within the 242,500-acre Río Grande del Norte National Monument. In 2013, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a previous version of the legislation.
In March 2013, President Barack Obama designated the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, which is widely supported by Taos and Rio Arriba county residents. A year after the national monument was designated, it was reported that the town of Taos lodgers' tax revenue increased by 21 percent in the second half of 2013, compared with the same time period in 2012. In addition, gross-receipts revenue to businesses in Taos County in the accommodations and food service sector rose 8.3 percent in the second half of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012, representing an increase of $3.7 million.
The area boasts incredible wildlands and waters that sustain the surrounding communities, and is home to elk, deer, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, sandhill cranes, and other wildlife. The area is one of the most stunning and ecologically significant in the state and a destination for tourists and outdoor enthusiasts.