Land acquisition near Mount Taylor moves sacred sites out of private ownership and preserves habitat

Sacred lands that have been cut off will once again be accessible to the public, including the Indigenous peoples who once served as guardians of these lands.

Conservation groups, tribes, federal officials and state leaders have teamed up to acquire 54,000 acres near Laguna and west of Albuquerque.

A portion of this land has already been transferred to the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game for management, while the remainder will be transferred over the next five years.

This purchase includes two adjoining properties and has been named L Bar Ranch. It will, in future, be combined with the adjacent Marquez Wildlife Management Area.

In addition to increasing access to recreation, the acquisition will protect habitat and archaeological sites near Mount Taylor, a composite volcano sacred to several Native American groups.

The property includes sites sacred to several tribes and Pueblos of New Mexico, including the Navajo Nation and the Pueblos of Laguna, Acoma and Zuni, including approximately 1,000 archaeological sites. Approximately half of the property is within Mount Taylor Traditional Cultural Property. Mount Taylor’s traditional cultural ownership includes federal, tribal, state, private, and land-grant properties and encompasses more than 442,000 acres.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Theresa Pasqual, program director for the Pueblo of Acoma, spoke of her people’s connection to Mount Taylor.

“It’s important to Acoma in terms of how we orient ourselves to the landscape,” she said. “This particular mountain is associated with the cardinal direction of north, and religious and cultural significance is associated with it.”

She said the Acoma people would have traditionally used the land in what is now L Bar Ranch to collect wood and plants as well as for their wildlife resources.

“The purchase and protection of the L Bar property represents the potential for younger generations of Acoma children who have never seen these lands to now have a chance to rediscover them,” Pasqual said.

Pueblo d’Acoma Governor Randall Vicente also spoke about the historic connection to L Bar Ranch in the press release.

“Before becoming private property, the area in and around the L Bar Ranch was used by the Pueblo for traditional cultural and ceremonial purposes,” he said. “The pilgrimage trails are always evident, as well as the geographical sight connections to the Sandia and Manzano mountains. The Pueblo hopes that once the purchase is complete, an ethnographic study can be conducted to identify areas, places and sites of cultural significance.

The organization Trust for Public Land led the effort to acquire the land. He has been in New Mexico for approximately 40 years and focuses on acquiring land based on community priorities to increase access to nature. In the case of the L Bar Ranch property, significance to the Pueblos was a driving reason behind the acquisition.

Jim Petterson, vice president of the Mountain West region of the Trust for Public Land, said his organization heard about the L Bar Ranch about a year ago when the property came on the market. After doing some research, the Trust for Public Land began working to acquire this property. This included reaching out to state and federal officials, who helped advocate for the acquisition. State Representative Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, worked to secure financing to help with the purchase.

“Public lands are central to New Mexicans and our way of life,” Small said in a press release. “The Marquez Wildlife Area expansion will restore access to and stewardship of sacred lands for our tribes, nations, and pueblos. All of its big game hunts will go to New Mexicans, while opening up new opportunities for recreation and conservation I am proud that our legislature has supported this effort that will benefit New Mexicans in perpetuity.

In 2011, state Senator George Muñoz, D-Gallup passed legislation requiring all big game hunting licenses for wildlife management areas to be issued to state residents. There are over 40 wildlife management areas in the state of New Mexico.

The Marquez Wildlife Management Area straddles the McKinley and Sandoval county lines and was originally purchased in 1968 to provide big game hunting opportunities.

The state provided $31 million for the purchase of the land. The total purchase price was $34.1 million.

In a press release, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said much of that funding came from hunters and anglers. She said the acquisition will protect habitat for pronghorn, elk, cougar, deer and bear.

“As the world and New Mexico become more urban, it is essential that we conserve wild spaces. Conserving the L Bar Ranches and Marquez Wildlife Management Area is an important step in this process,” she said. “Together, they are creating more than 68,000 acres that protect migration corridors and improve wildlife conservation in New Mexico.”

Habitat management will help the animals that live on the L Bar Ranch adapt to climate change. One way to achieve this is to provide a large portion of the land without fences or barriers. The acquisition will also prevent possible future development that could destroy the habitat. The L Bar Ranch property is home to approximately 400 species of plants and animals.

According to a news release, had conservation groups and state and federal officials been unable to secure the acquisition, the land likely would have been subdivided and developed. This would have meant that sites considered sacred to several Pueblo and Navajo nations would remain in private ownership in perpetuity.

The land could also have been developed for energy extraction, including natural gas and uranium.

Petterson said a mix of public and private funds were used to acquire L Bar Ranch, including working with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

US Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, said in a press release that federal funding from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act was used to help purchase the land. This law was passed in 1937 and reallocated the proceeds of an excise tax on firearm purchases to a grant fund for state wildlife agencies.

“The high mesas, dramatic volcanic cones and open valleys of this stunningly beautiful landscape near iconic Mount Taylor are home to cultural sites for the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni, and the Navajo Nation,” said he declared. “There is also abundant habitat teeming with wildlife, including large herds of elk that stretch from its northeast foothills to the Mount Taylor plateau.”

Prior to the acquisition, Petterson said it might be difficult to travel to the Marquez Wildlife Management Area due to private land. He said the acquisition will increase access to public lands.

He said access to nature is extremely important for mental and physical health.

He said L Bar Ranch features “very dramatic volcanic cones rising from the valley floor.” It also has mesa and ponderosa pine forests as well as grasslands.

The high-altitude property ranges from 6,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level.

Peterson said the Trust for Public Land has said the Department of Game and Fish must now develop a management plan for the land and he anticipates his organization will be involved in this process as a stakeholder similar to other groups and individuals.

Once the transfer of ownership is fully completed, which is being done in stages, and the management plan is in place, Petterson said members of the Trust for Public Land will enjoy visiting the area like other residents of New -Mexico.

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