Senator Martin Heinrich Delivers Floor Speech on Importance of Public Lands Package

U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich delivered a Senate floor speech yesterday to highlight key conservation and energy bills he helped secure in the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“We stand on the cusp of passing one of the most significant pieces of public land legislation since 2009,” said Sen. Heinrich in his remarks. “None of this would be possible were it not for years of effort and support from the local communities that helped craft these bills.  Thanks to their work, New Mexico’s critical public land based economic engine will continue to grow in the energy, tourism, sporting and recreation sectors.”

Watch and share Senator Heinrich’s remarks.

Below are Senator Heinrich’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Mr. President, we stand on the cusp of passing one of the most significant pieces of public land legislation since 2009. I stand here to speak on behalf of this well-balanced package, which is absolutely critical for jobs across the western United States and particularly in my home state of New Mexico.

None of this would be possible were it not for years of effort and support from the local communities that helped craft these bills.

Thanks to their work, New Mexico’s critical public land based economic engine will continue to grow in the energy, tourism, sporting and recreation sectors.  And new wilderness and National Park Service units will continue to make New Mexico a unmatched destination for world travelers as well as for the local families that have known for centuries that New Mexico really is the Land of Enchantment.

Located in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, the area known as Columbine-Hondo has been managed as a Wilderness Study Area since 1980.

Columbine-Hondo is cherished by all who know it and is a key attraction for the local tourism and outdoor recreation economy.  When I was a young outfitter guide and the Executive Director of the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation, Columbine Hondo was one of the spectacular destinations where our students backpacked, slept under the stars, and learned to navigate in the backcountry.

This area has some of the best elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep habitat in New Mexico.  And people come from across the nation to experience a true wilderness elk hunt in its aspen and fir forests.  Fisherman will tell you that it is also home to some of the last, best habitat for our native Rio Grande cutthroat trout, which is coincidentally New Mexico’s state fish.

Columbine Hondo is home to the headwaters of the Red River and the Rio Hondo, both major tributaries of the Rio Grande, and the snowmelt from Lobo Peak and Gold Hill provide critical irrigation water to local acequia associations who carry on age-old agricultural traditions.

For millennia, these mountains, rivers, and wildlife have supported New Mexico’s traditional communities.  The first evidence of human habitation here stretches back 11,000 years, and nearby Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited for more than a thousand years.

Spanish settlers first came to the area in the 16th Century, and Hispanic families have relied on these mountains for their way of life ever since.

Today, Columbine-Hondo is a central attraction for visitors to Taos County, where outdoor recreation and tourism drive the local economy and contribute to a 68,000 job strong public land recreation industry in our state.

In addition to finally designating Columbine Hondo as wilderness, this package would also expand the Wheeler Peak Wilderness by approximately 650 acres while modifying a boundary in order to create a loop trail accessible by mountain bikes along the Lost Lake trail from Taos Ski Valley to the East Fork trail to Red River.

It has broad community support, including from the Taos Pueblo, local government leaders, hunters, fishermen, business owners, land grant heirs, ranchers, acequia parcientes, conservationists, mountain bikers, veterans, and many, many more.

In October, I joined the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Coalition, regional stakeholders, and local officials for a hike in the area to highlight conservation and water initiatives.

Local residents discussed why they support permanently protecting the Columbine-Hondo and what the area means to them.

Esther Garcia, an acequia commissioner and the former mayor of Questa expressed her support well when she said…

“Columbine Hondo is very important to all of us.  To preserve this beautiful wilderness area, we preserve our hunting, our piñon picking, our herb gathering.”
I want to thank all the residents of Taos County who have worked hard for decades to make this wilderness area a reality.

Also included in this public lands package, is a provision to transition the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico to new management to increase public access.

This proposal was developed after extensive input from local residents, sportsmen, business owners, and elected officials and is supported by local chambers of commerce.

Together they decided that a National Preserve managed by the Park Service, with a mandate for hunting and fishing to remain central to the management of the area, was the best way to ensure expanded public access while preserving this incredible landscape for future generations.

The Valles Caldera is a crater created by a collapsed super-volcano, and is made up of cinder cones scattered throughout a deep grassy valley.

The Caldera is home to crystal clear trout streams and some of the best elk habitat in the state.

Since then, the Preserve has been managed by a Board of Trustees charged with generating enough revenue from user fees and other sources to make the Preserve financially self-sustaining.

This has led to drastically limited public access with relatively high entrance and permit fees, locking many New Mexicans out of this public land.

By shifting to Park Service management, we can open the Valles Caldera to the public while conserving the one-of-a-kind resources found there.

As someone who has been lucky enough to draw an elk tag in the Caldera, expanding hunting opportunities for the public is one of the primary reasons I’m supporting this proposal. 

The preserve model ensures that hunting and fishing remain central activities for the public to enjoy, and NPS management will help balance expanded public access with conserving the natural and cultural resources found in the area. 

Park Service management will also help bring more visitors and will raise the national profile of the preserve for visitors from outside of New Mexico.

The increase in visitors at the Preserve is expected to bring more than 200 jobs and $8 million in wages to the communities in the region.

That is great news for communities like Los Alamos, Española, and Jemez Springs.

We’ve seen elsewhere how protecting public lands spurs economic development.

According to Headwaters Economics, rural counties with protected federal lands, like national parks, saw a 345 percent increase in jobs over the last 40 years, whereas rural counties without protected lands saw jobs increase by only 83 percent over the same period.

I want to thank the local community and elected officials who have worked for decades to put this proposal together, as well as Senator Tom Udall and former Senator Jeff Bingaman for their leadership on this issue. 

We all stand on the shoulders of giants in this effort, as it was Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico who first proposed National Park Service management of the Valles Caldera in the early 1960s. 

Additionally, as the son of a Navy sailor who saw several of the early nuclear tests I am especially pleased to see that the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act, introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell is also included.  It will establish three different educational sites in Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington.

Los Alamos, New Mexico has made invaluable contributions to our nation’s nuclear history.

These parks will conserve historic sites and artifacts that played a key role in the dawn of the nuclear era while telling the story of the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb and exploring its consequences for society.

And finally, I’d like to mention a provision in this package that will benefit New Mexico’s energy economy.

It is a bill which I co-sponsored, but that was authored and championed by my colleague Senator Tom Udall to ensure that the Bureau of Land Management has the staff it needs to streamline the oil and gas drilling permit process while strengthening the review system that helps meet important environmental and safety standards.

Thousands of jobs and a sizable portion of our state’s economy are supported by New Mexico’s oil and gas industry. Increasing cooperation among federal agencies and business is an important way to boost job creation and expand domestic energy production.

Like other Americans who value our shared lands as assets to be utilized, enjoyed and passed on to future generations, these are all things worth fighting for.

I’m committed to carry on my state’s rich conservation history and this legislation makes an enormous contribution to that ever-evolving story.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.