PUBLIC LANDS: One year later, Rio Grande national monument boosting northern N.M. economy

E&E Newsroom PM: An E&E Publishing Services

Thursday, March 20, 2014
Scott Streater, E&E reporter

Nearly a year after President Obama designated the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, residents and business leaders in north-central New Mexico say the monument is fulfilling its promise as an economic driver in the region.

Business leaders in the Taos, N.M., area near the 243,000-acre national monument site released economic data today showing that, in only 12 months, the monument has drawn more visitors who have brought increased spending and revenue with them.

“One year in and we have already seen some positive economic data,” said Laura Sanchez, CEO of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, during a conference call with reporters.

President Obama in March 2013 used his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to bypass Congress and designate the rugged river gorge and plateau as the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. “The protection of the Río Grande del Norte will preserve its cultural, prehistoric, and historic legacy and maintain its diverse array of natural and scientific resources, ensuring that the historic and scientific values of this area remain for the benefit of all Americans,” Obama said in his proclamation establishing the monument (E&ENews PM, March 25, 2013).

Environmentalists have called the area one of the most ecologically significant in the state, citing its importance to elk, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and great horned owls. But hunters, rafters and hikers also use the Rio Grande Gorge and Taos Plateau extensively, and the increased notoriety of a national monument has driven business to the region.

The New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce economic numbers show the national monument has increased the town of Taos lodgers’ tax revenue 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 chamber attributes this boost to the increased number of visitors to the newly designated monument. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the monument as part of the National Landscape Conservation System, has reported a 40 percent increase in visitors to the site in less than a year, rising to 182,501 visitors from 130,000, according to the chamber.

The spike in visitors to the area “has been great for my business,” said Cisco Guevara, president of Los Rios River Runners in Taos, which leads white-water rafting trips down the Rio Grande and Rio Chama rivers.

“The effect it has had on my business is quite profound,” Guevara said during the call. “Even though we had low water levels in recent years, my business experienced the busiest fall season ever in 2013. I attribute this in large part to the monument’s ability to attract new people to the area.”

The effort to tout the economic benefits of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument come as conservation groups and residents in “The Land of Enchantment” are pushing the Obama administration to designate another national monument in the Organ Mountains in southern New Mexico.

New Mexico’s Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich in December introduced S. 1805, which would designate the 500,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, including 240,000 acres of wilderness. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured the area in January with both senators (Greenwire, Jan. 22).

But if the legislation does not work, the president should use his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate the Organ Mountains region as a national monument, Sanchez said.

“As we celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Rio Grande del Norte, we are excited about the possibility of having another new monument in southern New Mexico,” she said, pointing to the positive economic numbers for the Rio Grande del Norte.

“When special places like Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks receive monument status and are properly promoted, visitors will come. And that visitation creates jobs and grows our economy,” she added. “National monuments are good business for New Mexico.”

Arianna Parsons, the owner of Beck’s Coffee in Las Cruces, N.M., near the Organ Mountains site, said she agrees.

“It is very encouraging to hear the positive responses from Taos business owners on the first anniversary of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument,” Parsons said. “Those of us in southern New Mexico are hopeful that Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks will become a national monument so we can experience the same kinds of economic benefits in our own community.”