Thomas Romero


“Through history those men are heroes whose deeds have been given proper recognition by the historian’s pen. Others, whose lives are unrecorded, so far as posterity is concerned, did nothing, for of these our annals are silent and we know them not.


“No greater misfortune could possibly befall a people than to lack a historian properly to set down their annals; one who with faithful zeal will guard, treasure and perpetuate all those human events which if left to the frail memory of man and to the mercy of the passing years will be sacrificed upon the altars of time.”


Gaspar Perez de Villagrá, Historia de la Nueva México, 1610




There are two broad geographic areas of the United States with colonial histories and cultural references that differ from and predate the founding of the US. In these areas, Louisiana and New Mexico are often considered “foreign” places. Indeed, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area in Louisiana has branded itself as “America’s Foreign Country,” owing to the heavy influences of its French and Cajun history.


In the broad Southwest, the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Texas and Arizona, which surround NM, share its developmental history as part of the Spanish empire and Mexican territory. These lands were ceded to the US by Mexico as part of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but it was primarily NM that came into the US as a conquered land, taken at the start of the Mexican-American War. However, it is only NM among these states that is sometimes still referenced in other parts of the country as being in a foreign land.


Interestingly, NM (especially in the northern region surrounding the Río Grande) contains the heart of Pueblo settlements, with some extending over the last millennium, and those of the earliest Spanish colonists, reaching over the last four centuries. It is perhaps this association with centuries of settlement of different cultures and the entrenchment of the indigenous and Spanish languages and traditions that have framed the mindset surrounding NM.


The Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area (NRGNHA), a 10,000-square-mile area of outdoor wonders and historic treasures, contains the centers of Pueblo and Spanish governance and settlement. The area extends north to south from the Colorado border to the center of the state, and east to west between the Sangre de Cristo range and the San Juan Mountains, crossing the Continental Divide in the process. The northern Río Grande River flows through the center of the Heritage Area, but the area is strongly defined by its mountains, mesas and high-desert terrain. Within its boundaries lie a variety of cultural and recreational resources, and its residents and visitors look to cherished places for recreation and for connecting with nature, culture and history.


Of the 6.5 million acres comprising the NRGNHA, about half is federal, state or tribal land. The remaining land in private ownership—approximately three million acres, or 4,700 square miles—has a population density of 48 persons per square mile. In all, about 64 percent of the population in the three-county area is urban, much of it concentrated in the city of Santa Fe and the northern portion of Santa Fe County. The remaining 36 percent of the population, about 80,000 people, live in small farming villages and scattered communities along the Río Grande and its tributaries.





A National Heritage Area (NHA) is a place recognized by the US Congress for its unique contribution to the American experience. In a NHA, natural, cultural, historical and recreational resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography. These patterns make NHAs representative of the national experience through the physical features that remain and traditions that have evolved in these areas. Continued use by the people whose traditions helped to shape the landscape enhances their significance.


Beginning in 1984, NHAs were created by Congress as a new vehicle by which a region, through collaboration and partnerships, could conserve and promote its natural, cultural and historic resources, linking resource conservation, tourism and economic development. It is important to note the voluntary nature of this initiative, as it does not require, create or permit any regulatory layers or restrictions on private property. Each NHA is governed by separate authorizing legislation and operates under provisions unique to its resources and desired goals.


Creation of a NHA is primarily an outgrowth of local grassroots efforts. Local supporters bring a proposed Heritage Area to the attention of legislators and advocate for its passage while working with the National Park Service to determine whether it meets the designation criteria. After designation, a locally controlled management entity guides the development of a management plan, and then coordinates the many partners in the implementation of the plan’s projects and programs.



Ernesto Ortega, a retired employee of the National Park Service, is often referred to as the “Padrino” of the NRGNHA, owing to his early and intense efforts to conceive, foster and promote the designation. Asked about the reasons for establishing the NHA, he proclaimed, “We’re at the brink of losing Native American and Hispanic culture and Mestizaje!” He spoke about loss of native and Hispano languages, and the loss of customs, traditions and values when the language bases are not preserved.


The three-county NRGNHA comprises 10,000 square miles and counts a population of 219,719 (US Census Bureau, 2009), including eight Indian pueblos: Taos, Picuris, Ohkay Owingeh (previously known as San Juan), Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambé, Pojoaque and Tesuque, most of which occupy the same site, or nearby land, where their 14th and 15th century ancestors lived. Also within the Heritage Area boundary is the Jicarilla Apache Nation, which has headquarters at Dulce, in western Río Arriba County. Native Americans account for 10 percent of the Heritage Area’s population, while another 54 percent are Hispanic.


From ancient native cultures to Spanish exploration and colonization, to Mexican independence and American statehood, northern NM’s history is complex and intensely interesting. The combination of cultures, languages, folks arts, customs and architecture that emerged from these multifaceted interactions continue to shape the Heritage Area today, giving it a flavor all its own. Add the experience of Mexicans and Anglos to the mix, and northern NM becomes a place like no other.


The NRGNHA will tell the often-turbulent story of these diverse cultures—of their interactions with the landscape and with each other—and of the rich traditions that have created what today is a living mosaic of history and culture. Traditions go to the heart of the NRGNHA. They not only define its past, but also continue to provide sustenance, inspiration and cultural identity for residents today. The purpose of the Heritage Area is not just in preserving sites, but the way of life. It is dedicated to developing and sustaining the distinct history of north-central NM, and to maintaining its cultures and values.





The NRGNHA is a reflection of public involvement that took root soon after Congress designated the first NHAs in 1984. At that time, New Mexicans began to express a desire for greater recognition of the contributions of Native Americans and Spanish colonists in the history of the US.


Fueling this desire was passage, in 1988, of the Spanish Colonization Commemorative Act, which directed the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a study of Spanish frontier and borderlands culture. The 1991 National Park Service study, Alternative Concepts for Commemorating Spanish Colonization, identified several alternatives consistent with the establishment of a NHA.


In 1993, US Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici of NM jointly sponsored Senate Bill 294, the Colonial NM Commemorative Act, which called for the Secretary of the Interior to formulate a program for the research, interpretation and preservation of various aspects of colonial NM history. Although the act did not pass Congress, the idea earned enthusiastic support from the National Park Service.


In 1994, Río Arriba County opened the Oñate Monument Resource and Visitors Center, to promote the Hispanic heritage of the county and the Española Valley. Four years later, the 400th anniversary of Spanish settlement in NM and the development of a historically inspired plaza in Española furthered discussion for exploring ways to preserve, interpret and economically sustain northern NM’s heritage.


Efforts to create the NRGNHA formally began in September 1999 when a general meeting of citizens and representatives from a variety of government entities met in Española to explore possibilities. Follow-up meetings in nine targeted communities in the three-county area followed to explain the Heritage Area concept and gauge interest. In September, 2000, a steering committee, titled the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Committee, comprised of representatives from each county, took shape. The committee negotiated an agreement with the Regents of Northern NM College in Española to serve as our fiscal agent.


The Heritage Area designation was slow in coming. Sen. Jeff Bingaman twice introduced legislation in Congress to create the NRGNHA—once in the 107th Congress (2001-2002) and once in the 108th Congress (2003-2004)—but both bills failed. A bill introduced in 2002 by Rep. Tom Udall in the House of Representatives also did not pass. It was not until Oct. 12, 2006, that Congress formally established the NRGNHA under Public Law 109-338.


Heritage Area designation culminated nearly 20 years of community efforts to identify ways to conserve and sustain the area’s life ways, languages, folk arts, and sacred spaces, as well as its architecture and spectacular natural landscape.


The NRGNHA is rich in cultural resources; it is home to 16 National Historic Landmarks and 270 listings on the National Register of Historic Places. Its geologic history and wealth of natural resources is no less vivid. Water is the starting point, the lifeblood of this semi-arid-to-arid land where one river, the Río Grande, occupies center stage. The Río Grande and one of its major tributaries, the Río Chama, are part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The Heritage Area also counts nine National Scenic Byways. Two national forests cover vast acres in the three-county area, which also is home to a half-dozen Wilderness Areas and two listings on the National Registry of Natural Landmarks. Bandelier National Monument skirts the western edge of the Heritage Area, and Pecos National Historical Park the eastern edge.



A comprehensive plan for a well-managed NRGNHA will set the stage to connect the great variety of resources within the Heritage Area and create support for local businesses, traditional artisans and others, while increasing the quality of life for residents and enhancing the experiences of visitors.


The NRGNHA seeks to strengthen community identity by fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Heritage Area’s resources. This will be accomplished by creating connections and partnerships with individuals, communities and tribal and local governments to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for northern NM’s unique story and to use its important resources to benefit the community.



The NRGNHA Management Plan articulates a framework with specific recommendations to connect and enhance the Heritage Area’s rich offerings. The plan is a result of extensive public input from citizens, governments, and other stakeholders who are committed to preserving and promoting the heritage area’s special character. The plan serves as a model of public and private partnerships working together to implement policies that protect and connect the heritage area for future generations. It presents a comprehensive strategy for future management and protection of the heritage area’s diverse historic sites, unusual natural habitats and cultural traditions.



The mission of the NRGNHA is to sustain the communities, heritages, languages, cultures, traditions and environment of Northern NM through partnerships, education and interpretation.

Partnerships are created and enhanced through the shared vision of respecting, protecting, conserving and celebrating the landscape and the historical, social and cultural characteristics of the Indian, Hispanic and other communities of Río Arriba, Santa Fe and Taos counties.

Our vision is community and economic viability rooted in the heritage and the environment of Northern NM.


The vision for the Heritage Area is supported by six goals:

  • Enhance understanding and awareness of the heritage area’s stories and resources
  • Sustain traditions, heritage, and culture
  • Involve youth
  • Create partnerships
  • Conserve natural resources and outdoor spaces
  • Promote economic development and heritage tourism


Broad objectives linked to the vision, mission and goals of the NRGNHA are:


To build understanding and identity, raising local, regional and national awareness of the Northern Rio Grande region; to strengthen the fabric and sustainability of the place; to expand economic opportunities and to increase the community collaboration and involvement within communities that constitute the Heritage Area, while supporting a healthy ecosystem and enhancing natural resource-based recreation opportunities.



Three interpretive themes have been identified. Each theme is connected to a variety of resources that represent the themes in various depths.


Theme 1—Cradle of Settlement: The history of the Heritage Area is one of migration and settlement, with each wave of settlers bringing its own elements of culture. The stories are about the people.


Theme 2—Adaptation and Survival: The demands of the land, climate, geography and isolation from other centers of habitation force adaptation and unity with the harsh environment to permit long-term survival.


Theme 3—Identity Through a Cultural Blend: The region’s identity evokes the mingling of cultures. The specific interplay of land, water and people over an extended time defines the heritage of this special place.




Thomas Romero is executive director of the NRGNHA. For more information, visit




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