Monday, June 5, 2023
Public Lands

Advocates Reaffirm Goal to Protect Placitas Public Lands

Heinrich, Stansbury, Santa Ana urge federal protection



The connection of place and people took center stage this month as local, tribal and congressional leaders renewed their push to withdraw federal land in Placitas from mineral development.


Community residents and their allies have long stressed health, environmental and economic consequences in resisting expansion of the four gravel quarries already lining western Placitas. But a March 17 event at Santa Ana Pueblo also made the case for Placitas as central to preserving regional wildlife.


"It's an honor and a blessing to host everybody here," Santa Ana Gov. Nathan Garcia said in welcoming about 75 people to the tribe's Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort. "We are here because land is important."


The land in question is about 4,300 acres spread among four scattered parcels administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The largest piece, 3,127 acres nicknamed the Buffalo Tract in northwest Placitas, abuts existing quarries.


The BLM released a draft resource-management plan in 2012 touting marketable quantities of sand and gravel under the tract. While a final plan remains pending, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Melanie Stansbury co-hosted the Santa Ana event a few weeks after reintroducing the Buffalo Tract Protection Act to ban mineral development on the four parcels.


Stansbury noted the BLM draft plan covering its lands in six New Mexico counties generated 17,000 comments from Placitas.


"As the pueblos have shared with us, these are ancestral lands, land that are tied to the history of the pueblos themselves, there origin stories, the roots in which our pueblos came to be in the valley," she said. The land also is important to Placitas, the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant and the surrounding communities, she added.


"The protection of these lands is not just about the protection of land from being disturbed by mining," Stansbury continued. "It's about preserving culture, language, history and the environmental health and well-being of our communities."


Stansbury and Heinrich's previous bill was poised for passage in December until Republican protests pulled it from a larger catch-all bill that did pass. Their bills then died when Congress adjourned.


Both Heinrich and Stansbury said they again nudged the Department of Interior on March 17 encouraging an administrative withdrawal of the Placitas mineral rights. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Stansbury's predecessor in Congress, member of Laguna Pueblo and past tribal administrator of San Felipe Pueblo, can order a temporary withdrawal of up to 20 years, they said.


"Once you get the level of community support that you saw in the room, it becomes hard to predict when its going to happen, but it's not an 'if' anymore," Heinrich told the Signpost. "It's going to happen."


House and Senate members opposing the effort have said they reject locking up federal resources for any reason. The sand-and-gravel industry argues the Placitas resource is vital to Albuquerque's economic future.


The Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA), which formed a Land Use Protection Trust (LPT), and the Las Placitas Association contend gravel is available elsewhere away from communities and cite a 2010 BLM report showing a 60-mile band of the resource stretching from Los Lunas to Santa Fe.


"Our community is in broad agreement the passage of the Buffalo Tract Protection Act is crucial," LPT Chair Mary-Rose de Vallardes said during the Santa Ana meeting. "Truly this is localism New Mexico style."


The two organizations also have worked with the BLM on potential trails in the Buffalo Tract consistent with preserving the land as a wildlife corridor. Another group, Placitas-based Pathways: Wildlife Corridors of New Mexico, is part of a larger effort not only to protect wildlife corridors but to protect wildlife and the motoring public from roadway collisions.


Placitas is considered a wildlife crossroads connecting the Sandia and Jemez mountains while the BLM's Crest of Montezuma, the 903-acre ridge defining eastern Placitas, links the Rio Grande valley and east-central New Mexico.


With the growth of Sandoval County, small parcels of land become more important for wildlife, said Glenn Harper, manager of Santa Ana's Range and Wildlife Division. The division restored antelope and turkeys to the pueblo while rehabilitating land and water resources, he added.


"We find that right there where the Buffalo Tract is, animals want to cross there, they get hit by cars on I-25 there," Harper told the Tamaya audience. "It's an important corridor for this piece of New Mexico."


As previously reported in the Signpost, Santa Ana's work collected 150,000 data points from tracking wildlife with GPS collars and also detailed vehicle-animal crashes. That proved useful when the 2019 Legislature passed the Wildlife Corridor Act ordering the Departments of Transportation and Game and Fish to research wildlife corridors and create a plan to protect animals and people.


Bernalillo anchors one of the six hotspots named in the plan focused on I-25 north through Algodones and Santa Ana, San Felipe and Tewa/Santo Domingo pueblos and U.S. Highway 550 northwest through Santa Ana and Zia pueblos. Control methods already in use in the West include fencing to guide animals to new or existing culverts or purpose-built animal overpasses.


A Wildlife Corridor Fund to begin implementing the plan won bipartisan approval in the legislative session just ended. However a Senate committee stripped $50 million from the bill although $5 million survived in a separate appropriations bill awaiting action by the governor.


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