The Hispanic legacy to protect our land and water

Las-Cruces-Sun-NewsBy Michael Casaus, Guest columnist
10/08/2013
Las Cruces Sun-News

Autumn is upon us, the weather is cooling off and the smell of roasting green chile is in the air. This is an important time to reflect upon two aspects of our state that make us unique: our diverse wealth of public lands and our centuries of rich Hispanic heritage.

In our Land of Enchantment, it is significant that late September marks both the second half of National Wilderness Month and the first half of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Though many might not see the natural connection between these two, as a Hispanic American who has dedicated his career to conservation, I can tell you with certainty that the protection of wilderness and Hispanic heritage cannot be unlinked. Our culture and way of life are bound to the land and water – our future depends on preserving it.

For too long, the conservation movement was seen as primarily an affluent Anglo issue. There was a perception that all Hispanics cared about was jobs and civil rights. And it was falsely assumed by people and groups not close to us that Hispanics did not care about conservation.

Thankfully, that assumption is changing – and here in New Mexico, with our rural values and close connection to the land, it’s changing faster than ever.

In the face of the continuing public debate over land and water conservation issues in New Mexico, Hispanics come down solidly in favor of conservation policies. A series of polls and opinion research conducted between 2008 and 2012 illustrated that not only do Hispanics value conservation, they also regularly place issues such as the preservation of land and water resources as a top concern.

This Hispanic conservation ethic was never more evident than in the recent campaign to secure national monument status for the Rio Grande del Norte near Taos. The new 242,000-acre national monument was the result of years of work and collaboration across northern New Mexico. This was a multicultural and multiethnic effort that included Hispanics, Anglos, and Native Americans as critical partners in the coalition. But, when you delve into the Hispanic support, you find broad backing from traditional communities, land grant heirs, acequia parciantes, ranchers and people at every level from community leaders to average Hispanic New Mexicans who care about where they live and want to see it protected. These diverse partnerships are helping change the politics of conservation in New Mexico.

The result is a broad-based coalition that truly reflected the diversity of the community and which spoke with one voice for the protection of Rio Grande del Norte – a place where future generations will be able to enjoy as hikers, hunters, firewood and piñon gatherers, and adventure seekers.

With the success of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, and the recognition of the critical role that Hispanics played in it, we are entering a new era in the conservation movement. Hispanics in New Mexico have now taken their rightful place as leaders in not only the defense of our most special places and resources, but in the defense and continuation of the American legacy. The Rio Grande del Norte isn’t just northern New Mexico’s, it belongs to the American people. Our public lands and cultural resources, no matter where they are, belong to all Americans. Part of America’s legacy is to preserve. To preserve those special places that I’ve grown to cherish so that one day I can take my children and grandchildren to the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge and say, “this is yours.”

The leadership role that Hispanics are playing in the protection of our land, water, and heritage is not unique to the Rio Grande del Norte, it is evident in conservation efforts throughout the state, and across the country.

In the north, Hispanic New Mexicans are playing a critical role to preserve the Valles Caldera and permanently protect Columbine Hondo, Rio San Antonio and Cerro de Yuta as federally designated Wilderness Areas.

In the south, where a concerted effort is underway to create a new national monument for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces, Hispanic voices in support of this designation are being heard loud and clear.

Just this spring the national League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group in the United States, unanimously passed a resolution calling on President Obama to create an Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

So, as we celebrate both National Wilderness Month and Hispanic Heritage Month, we should take heed and remember that the values of conservation run deep in the Hispanic culture. And, as America matures and embraces our nation’s growing diversity, Americans should also start to embrace the reality that the conservation movement is just as diverse as our country.

Michael Casaus is the New Mexico state director for the Wilderness Society