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Could creating a National Conservation Area in Conejos County serve to “shine a light” on over

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

10,000 years of human history?

Date: August 8th, 2023

Article by: Isabel Lisle (SLVEC Communications Manager)

Students from the Justice Heritage Academy discover crawdads at historical site 'De Vargas Crossing'

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) is exploring an opportunity to get an area of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands within Conejos County along the Rio Grande designated as a National Conservation Area (NCA). The Rio Grande (river corridor) is an ecological hotspot that has supported human occupation for over 10,000 years. This area's important cultural and environmental history can boost the economy for Conejos County, while simultaneously celebrating the story of its ongoing indigenous legacy, and embracing the recent contributions of hispanic and anglo cultures.

There are over 10,000 years of human history within this landscape (SDCNHA, 2023). From the Paleoindian nomadic people (10,000- 5500 BC) who survived by hunting now extinct large game species such as mammoth and bison, to the Ute tribes (1400 AD) who hunted small game and collected piñon nuts, roots, seeds, and grass. From the Spanish expeditions into the San Luis Valley (1580-1594), to the early Hispanio settlers who first constructed several acequias (irrigation ditches) to distribute water from the Rio Culebra to their fields (1830s-1900s). From the American exploration and punitive military conflict against the Ute tribes (1850s– 1920s), to the mechanized center pivot irrigation system that allows farmers today to grow potatoes, wheat, native hay, and alfalfa (1945-present). Residents of the area and their ancestors continue to resist the influences of newcomers by embracing their traditional cultures and time honored practices (SDCNHA, 2023).

Today, indigenous people are still thriving within communities in the Pueblos of Northern New Mexico, on land that overlaps with this conservation designation at the border of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. “The Pueblos of Northern New Mexico are a present day, living history and example of the peoples that were part of this landscape 10,000 years ago. We need to learn and bridge this history to fully understand who we are today as participants with this living landscape. A National Conservation Area (NCA) designation, can provide the forum, resources and leadership to guide this important human story” (Chris Canaly, 2023).

On June 29th, 2023, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council met with a group in Antonito, Colorado to weigh the benefits of creating a NCA designation in Conejos County and garner local support to move forward and pursue designation.

The potential NCA focuses on the area surrounding the Rio Grande in Colorado from the southern boundary of the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge to the New Mexico State line. This special Colorado (CO) BLM area would also connect with the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument created by Presidential Proclamation in 2013, in northern New Mexico. These potential CO areas including mostly BLM lands in Conejos, but also opportunities may be possible in Costilla County, and could comprise almost 192,000 acres in total. Of this, about 82,000 acres are managed by BLM, 26,900 acres are other public land (mostly state land or county land managed by the state), and 82,800 acres may be possible on private land, if landowners wanted to be included.

Proposed SLV National Conservation Area

Within Conejos County specifically, the proposed area runs through Sandhill Crane habitat, critical aquatic habitat, sensitive ecosystems, and a landscape with a rich archeological and cultural history. By pursuing this designation, Conejos County has the opportunity to not only preserve the integrity of the land indefinitely, but also to preserve the historical and cultural integrity of the region.

Ancient petroglyphs, artifacts, and structures dot the region, reminding us of the rich indigenous and Spanish history that is unique to the Valley. The designation would protect the history of the De Vargas Crossing as well as the petroglyphs near the Lobatos Bridge. The De Vargas Crossing echoes the rising tensions between Native communities and Spanish colonizers in the late 17th century. Above this area are remnants of an old Native rock structure, as well as various metates (stone tools for grinding grains and seeds). This stretch of the Rio Grande was likely a popular site for indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

In 1892, Costilla Crossing Bridge (AKA Lobatos Bridge), was brought by train to Antonito, and hauled by wagon to its current location. At the time it was built, it was the largest crossing bridge west of the Mississippi. Below the bridge are various petroglyphs with dates unknown and an ancient fire pit. By supporting the preservation of these historic sites along the Rio Grande, we honor the rich cultural heritage of the San Luis Valley.

Labatos Bridge, Photo by: William Horton

These cultural sites are ecologically significant, supporting an abundance of wild medicinal plants, reptiles, birds, and mammals, speaking to the area's importance as a biological hotspot. A National Conservation area would not only be able to bring in financial resources to the region and support historical preservation efforts, but also provide tools to share this important story of the human landscape with the public, and boost the local economy.

Several areas in Colorado have specifically offered protection to their most vulnerable habitats while simultaneously stimulating their economy. At the Great Sand Dunes National Park last year, park visitors spent an estimated $41.3 million dollars in local gateway regions while visiting the park, supporting more than 530 jobs (NPS, 2022).

Economists believe that protected federal lands are an important driver of economic growth. Across Colorado and the West, protected federal lands such as national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas are associated with higher rates of job growth (Headwaters economics, 2022). In fact, western non-metro counties with more than 30% of lands federally protected increased jobs by 345% (Headwaters economics, 2022).

Another National Conservation Area called Mcinnis, in Mesa County near Grand Junction, holds more than 75,000 acres of black ridge canyons wilderness, internationally important fossils, pictograph and petroglyph sites, and the second-largest concentration of natural arches in North America. As a result of this National Conservation Area designation, Mesa County has provided 6,478 jobs to community members and $190,139,531 in wages (BLM, 2023).

An increase in tourism from the National Conservation area could mean an increase in jobs and wages for the people in Conejos County. In 2020, Conejos County, CO had a population of 8.13k people with a median age of 38.5 and a median household income of $33,611. Between 2019 and 2020 the population of Conejos County, CO grew from 8,128 to 8,130, a 0.0246% increase and its median household income declined from $36,084 to $33,611, a −6.85% decrease (Data USA, 2020). Conejos County has the opportunity to create a more resilient community by diversifying their local economy through national conservation area tourism.

By pursuing a National Conservation Area Designation, Conejos County has the unique opportunity to provide more job opportunities, share important origin and history stories with future generations, protect ecologically sensitive habitat, and preserve the cultural and traditional values that have existed for over 10,000 years.

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