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Rio Grande del Norte Clears U.S. Senate Hurdle

December 17, 2009

TAOS, NM - New Mexico is a step closer to federal protection for the rugged country of Rio Grande del Norte. A bill in Congress to dedicate about 236,000 acres as a National Conservation Area - including two wilderness areas - cleared a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday with no changes. This part of northern New Mexico is an important flyway for migrating birds, and also is a calving area for herds of elk and pronghorn antelope in the spring. Conservation groups have been concerned about mining, oil drilling or power lines coming to the area.

John Olivas, northern director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, says this legislation would spark a cleaner, 'greener' industry - recreation, particularly for the town of Questa, considered in the heart of the proposed conservation area.

"There's a big presence with fishing and rafting on the Rio Grande right now. So, giving the opportunity for some of the local residents to become outfitters or become guides, those are the initiatives that we're going through with residents of Questa."

A lot of legwork went into creating the bill, says Olivas, which he thinks is one reason it has gained consensus.

"We have the land grant communities, we have the grazing communities that we've approached, and making sure that there are no changes to the grazing laws as this legislation goes through the process."

Both local government and business groups support the bill. Some needed reassurance that it wouldn't cost the area much-needed jobs, but Olivas says employment can come instead from tourism. Now, the bill heads to the Senate floor for action.

The Rio Grande del Norte Conservation Area Establishment Act was introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - NM