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PUBLIC LANDS: Shutdown squashes visitor boom at new N.M. monument

April Reese, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, October 9, 2013

TAOS, N.M. — Sunday was one of those picture-perfect autumn days in northern New Mexico: clear, cool and bright. But aside from a few brightly colored kayaks, there were few signs of life in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, a scenic 74-mile sweep of river funneled through the 800-foot-deep Rio Grande Gorge.

Like the hundreds of other national monuments, parks and wildlife refuges around the country that have been closed since Oct. 1 by the government shutdown, Rio Grande del Norte’s 242,455 acres are, for the most part, off-limits to visitors.

The parking lot at the Bureau of Land Management’s Taos field office has sat empty. Only federal law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency responders are allowed to stay on the job during the “funding lapse,” as BLM refers to it on its closure signs.

The shutdown has quashed the plans of visitors who have come to see the monument from neighboring states and beyond. And local outfitters and other small businesses buoyed by an uptick in revenues since the monument was designated by President Obama in March are now worried about a potential reversal of fortune.

A recent BLM study found visitation to the Rio Grande del Norte area has increased by 40 percent since the monument was established.

“Having a monument designation has been wonderful for our business,” said Dan Irons, co-owner of Taos Mesa Brewing, which is just down the road from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, a popular viewing spot in the monument. “This September compared to last September we’re running 40 percent higher. It seems like there’s a lot more energy in Taos now and a lot more hope for the future.”

Many of Irons’ customers are also locals, and Taos Mesa Brewing has yet to see a dip in revenues due to the shutdown, he said. Other businesses that rely almost exclusively on monument-related tourism, such as outfitters, haven’t been so lucky.

“These businesses already have few employees, they run very lean in their operations,” said Laura Sanchez, CEO of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce. “So when they’re faced with having to scale back, they have to make tough decisions about laying people off, and I think that’s a huge fear for people.”

Suzie Benton, a senior rafting guide at Los Rios River Runners, said that although the company typically closes in late fall, this autumn was turning out to be one of its best ever due to recent rains that swelled the river. But the company is getting fewer customers now, she said.

“I think we would have seen more calls without the government shutdown,” Benton said. “I think a lot of people think that we’re closed.”

BLM didn’t cordon off all of the launches in the monument, but other facilities essential to a successful rafting trip are inaccessible, she added.

“They called us the day of the shutdown to let us know they were leaving certain launches and takeouts open for us, which was really nice of them,” Benton said. “The bathrooms, however, are locked. That can be really inconvenient.”

The company is making do with “groovers” — essentially large tin cans topped with toilet seats — named for the indentations they leave behind, she said.

Other outfitters are still unsure about which parts of the monument are still open, and because the Taos BLM office is closed, there’s no one available to ask.

“The campgrounds are closed, but is the river closed?” asked Chrissy Streit, who manages Taos Fly Shop, an outfitter that leads fishing trips in Rio Grande del Norte. “Some of the access sites don’t have any signs. We don’t know where we can go and where we can’t go.”

Streit said her company is assuming that areas that are usually manned by employees or volunteers are off-limits and other access points are open.

“I’m just trying to approach it with common sense,” Streit said. “Of course, there’s no one out there to enforce it either.”