Protecting a national treasure that embodies the American Southwest
There’s a reason New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment: it is filled with abundant wildlife, vast mountain ranges, alpine forests, sweeping desert landscapes and stunning sunsets. This enchanted landscape is also steeped with historical and cultural significance linked to Indigenous, traditional Spanish and Mestizo lineages, as well as English-speaking settlers. New Mexico’s lands are adorned with a living history that speak to the sacred connection between people, land, water and wildlife since time immemorial. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come each year to visit such spectacular wonders as the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the Valles Caldera and Bandelier National Monument. These places have rightfully been protected so that future generations can continue to enjoy them, while learning about our past and its connection to the present.
Unfortunately, there is an equally important landscape just outside the city of Santa Fe that doesn’t have these permanent protections, although this area embodies the very history and identity of the American Southwest.
Caja del Rio (Spanish for “Box of the River”), spans more than 106,000 acres and contains thousands of ancient Indigenous petroglyphs from the 13th to 17th century. These Pueblo rock etchings show the sacred connection that people have had to these lands, the water, and wildlife since time immemorial. The Caja also is the site of a major portion of the historic Spanish trail of “El Camino Real Tiera de Adentro,” the longest trade route in North America that ran from Mexico City to Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. This trade route through Caja del Rio served as the gateway to the City of Santa Fe, the nation’s oldest capital city. Later this route formed iconic portions of the famous Route 66, which fostered hope for the nation coming out of the Great Depression and became a symbol of adventure, freedom and westward movement.
In addition to the historical and cultural significance, Caja del Rio is home to diverse wildlife, including elk, mule deer, mountain lions, bears as well as a variety of birds, including golden and bald eagles, and burrowing owls. The Caja is a critical piece of a wildlife migration corridor that runs from Colorado to Mexico — one of the most intact wildlife pathways in the nation.
Despite the tremendous cultural, historical and wildlife significance, the Caja del Rio faces numerous threats — including wildfires, mining, poaching, vandalism, desecration, illegal dumping and habitat fragmentation. That’s why a broad coalition of people — ranging from Pueblo governors, spiritual leaders, outdoor recreationists and community advocates — have all come together to advocate for permanent protections for the Caja. This year, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Santa Fe County Commission and the Santa Fe City Council all passed resolutions calling for federal protections so that this significant area will continue to thrive for generations to come.
Caja del Rio is currently managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. However, without permanent protections and increased funding for better management and law enforcement, the future of the Caja is at risk. Legislation currently being proposed could allow mining to desecrate these sacred lands and create new roads and infrastructure that will fragment this fragile wildlife habitat. Almost on a daily basis, ancient petroglyphs are defaced, trash is dumped and illegal shooting threatens wildlife and creates an unsafe environment for those who enjoy and want to preserve and protect the Caja.
We need permanent federal protections to safeguard this landscape so that future generations can continue to explore, learn and connect with these sacred lands. We urge Congress and President Biden to listen to the diverse communities in northern New Mexico that are advocating for permanent safeguards for the wildlife, ancient artifacts, lands and waters of the Caja. If this natural and cultural treasure isn’t protected, a large part of our history and our very identity will be lost with it. It’s time to implement both legislative and administrative protections — whether by designating Caja del Rio as a national conservation area, traditional cultural property and/or a national monument. These protections are essential so that Caja del Rio receives the funding and critical attention it so desperately needs and deserves.
Rev. Andrew Black, public lands field director for the National Wildlife Federation
Joseph Brophy Toledo is a spiritual leader at Jemez Pueblo.
Councilwoman Renee Villarreal is on the Santa Fe City Council.