New Mexico has the least amount of protected lands in the West, but we have a vast landscape filled with remarkable biodiversity and cultural significance. Just to the west of Santa Fe, perched between mountain ranges, bordered by cottonwood-laced waterways, and filled with the rich heritage and traditions of its native peoples, the Caja del Rio Plateau is a jewel in a state filled with natural treasures.
Located on 106,883 acres of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service public lands in north-central New Mexico, the Caja is a place of profound cultural, historical, archeological, and ecological importance. Sacred to Puebloan peoples and a site of cultural significance for the Hispano communities of the area, it is a touchstone place, grounding those who live around it to land and history.
Ecologically, it is remarkably intact, somehow escaping the rush of development and environmental change around it while bereft of significant federal and state protections. It remains home to a diverse array of species, and hosts many more that use the wildlife corridor that runs along the upper Rio Grande into Colorado.
While still extraordinarily persevered, the Caja is under threat. Vandalism, dumping, off–roading, poaching, and the desecration of sacred sites have marred the landscape, exposing the vulnerability of this liminal space. Lacking significant federal and state protections, it will gradually be ground down by the tireless impulses of our unchecked desires, invariably parceled up and sold section by section to developers and landowners.
To survive, the Caja del Rio needs protection, which only lasting, well-funded executive or legislative action can provide. But right now, we have an opportunity, a chance to preserve this treasure that remains.
SB 9, the recently passed bill to create a Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund, is an enormous step in the right direction. Its permanent, recurring state funding could leverage millions of federal dollars, allowing the state to work with federal agencies to set long-term management goals and support increased law enforcement. Opportunity also exists to utilize the conservation Permanent Fund investment to fulfill the Governor’s executive order, “Protecting New Mexico’s Lands, Watersheds, Wildlife, and Natural Heritage.” This order aims to protect 30% of lands and waters in New Mexico by 2030. The Caja falls firmly into this vision.. Already composed of a tapestry of protected lands, the area needs further protections, fulfilling a portion of the Governor’s order and preserving a key piece of the state’s cultural heritage, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity.
But regardless of the opportunity, the Caja del Rio must be maintained and shown the kind of stewardship Indigenous people have practiced since time immemorial. We must give it the respect and compassion one might give a loved one, for it is part of us, a shared place, a sacred place. Worth keeping, worth saving – a true New Mexican treasure, one that will fade into memory if we do nothing to preserve it.
We hope you will join in our advocacy to our local and federal elected leaders calling for the permanent protection of the greater Caja.