April 2012

Columbine Hondo – New Mexico’s Forgotten Wilderness


Stuart Wilde


A New Mexico Treasure

The Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is a pristine 46,000-acre Rocky Mountain paradise located in the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Taos County. Managed as Wilderness by the Carson National Forest, the Columbine Hondo is a treasured public wild land by residents and visitors alike, and is an important source of surface water for downstream agricultural communities. The springs and streams of the Columbine Hondo comprise valuable headwaters of two major tributaries of the Upper Rio Grande, the Red River and the Rio Hondo.

Situated between Taos Ski Valley and Red River, with the Wheeler Peak Wilderness to the south, and the Latir Peaks Wilderness to the north, the Columbine Hondo WSA sits nestled among some of the tallest peaks and most rugged country in New Mexico. The area’s prominent geologic feature is a massive horseshoe shaped massif that encircles the Columbine watershed, with a ridgeline that stays consistently above 11,000’ for over 13 miles. The flagship peaks of the Columbine Hondo WSA are Gold Hill (12.711’) and Lobo Peak (12,115’), and are defining elements of the Taos viewscape.

The lush subalpine forests of the Columbine Hondo are home to an abundance of Rocky Mountain wildlife, including mule deer and elk, black bear and mountain lion, wild turkey and ptarmigan. Above tree line, NM’s prized herd of Bighorn Sheep can be seen grazing in true alpine tundra ecology. The Columbine boasts over 75 miles of trails for hiking, backpacking and horseback riding, and is a favorite destination for sportsmen and anglers, wildlife viewers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts of all kinds.

New Mexico – “The Birthplace of Wilderness”

New Mexico is considered to be the birthplace of modern wilderness protection. Aldo Leopold, the father of wilderness protection and wildlife conservation, was the first Supervisor of the Carson National Forest, as NM entered statehood a century ago. Leopold’s old cabin still stands, behind what is now the Tres Piedras Ranger Station, and is a “must visit” for anyone interested in the history of wilderness protection and public lands conservation in NM.

In 1924, Leopold established the Gila Wilderness as the first designated wilderness in the world, here in NM. Leopold and the founders of the Wilderness Society became the framers of the Wilderness Act. Passed by Congress in 1964, the Wilderness Act was the first legislation on the planet to address human beings’ spiritual need to have wild places to reconnect and commune with the natural world, free from the encroachment of development and mechanization. Here in NM, the Wilderness Act designated the Gila, Pecos, San Pedro Parks and the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Areas. As a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, Wilderness Areas are the most highly protected parcels of land within our public lands system.

The 1980 New Mexico Wilderness Act

In the 1970’s the Forest Service was tasked to identify Roadless Areas and potential Wilderness Areas, as part of the R.A.R.E and R.A.R.E II inventories. Out of the R.A.R.E. process, New Mexicans began to look at areas deserving of future wilderness designation, and after a long struggle between wilderness advocates and anti-environmental groups, Congress passed the New Mexico Wilderness Act (Public Law 96-550) in 1980.

The Act established the Latir Peaks, Cruzes Basin, Dome, Bandelier and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas, among others. The Act also established the Columbine Hondo as a Wilderness Study Area (a temporary designation), to be managed by the Carson National Forest. It also mandated that the Secretary of Agriculture report back to Congress and the President, no later than January of 1986, with recommendations for or against wilderness designation. More than 30 years later, the Columbine Hondo is still in legislative limbo.

Redefining Conservation in New Mexico

In 2008, a local coalition formed for the purpose of seeing the Columbine Hondo WSA permanently protected as a designated Wilderness Area. Made up of local residents and concerned citizens, grazing and outfitting permittees, land grant heirs and acequia members, ranchers and sportsmen, along with regional and national conservation organizations; the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition is a broad based, bipartisan group of individuals and organizations, working to redefine conservation in NM.

Not too long ago, it would have been unheard of to have ranchers, hunters and land grant communities standing together in solidarity with environmentalists and conservation groups on wilderness protection issues. The Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition is creating a new model for conservation in the West by coming together as a community across the cultural and political spectrum to protect their natural and cultural resources for future generations.

Our Public Lands Are Under Attack

There is currently legislation before Congress that seeks to remove existing wilderness protections from Wilderness Study Areas like the Columbine Hondo. H.R.1581 and S.1087, known as “The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011” would remove wilderness protections from more than 60 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas and Roadless Areas across America. Similar legislation could cause the Columbine Hondo to lose its current wilderness protection, and result in the area being opened up for roads and motorized use, timber sales, mineral and energy exploration, and other forms of development.

Time is Running Out

The fate of the Columbine Hondo is hanging by a thread. It has been more than 30 years, and if the area is not permanently protected soon, it will likely lose its wilderness protections. Senator Jeff Bingaman, who has been a champion for NM public lands conservation, is in his final year in Congress. It is critical that Sen. Bingaman introduce wilderness legislation for the Columbine Hondo before his time in Congress runs out.

How You Can Help

You can help by calling, writing or emailing our elected officials and urge them to support wilderness designation for the Columbine Hondo. To learn more about the issue, and to take action to permanently protect this magnificent wilderness area, please visit www.columbinehondo.org.


A Few Statistics

New Mexico has the lowest percentage of wilderness (2%)

of all the westernstates. The Carson National Forest

encompasses nearly 1.5 million acres onboth sides of the

Rio Grande watershed, with only 6% protected as wilderness.


Stuart Wilde is the Director of Wild Earth Llama Adventures (www.LlamaAdventures.com), and a member of the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition. He is a Carson National Forest Permittee, and leads interpretive wilderness ecology trips in the Columbine Hondo WSA.



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