Saving Caja del Rio in New Mexico

There’s a reason New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment: it is filled with abundant wildlife, vast mountain ranges, alpine forests, sweeping desert landscapes, and stunning sunsets. This enchanted landscape is also steeped with historical and cultural significance linked to Indigenous, traditional Spanish, as well as English-speaking settlers. New Mexico’s lands are adorned with a living history that speaks to the sacred connection between people, land, water, and wildlife since time immemorial.

One place, in particular, embodies the very history and identity of the American Southwest. Caja del Rio (Spanish for “Box of the River”), spans more than 106,000 acres and contains thousands of ancient Indigenous petroglyphs from the 13th-17th century. These Pueblo rock etchings show the sacred connection that people have had to these lands, the water, and wildlife. 

Large, tan and brown boulders stand against a blue sky. There are images carved onto the face of the boulders.
Petroglyphs dating back 700 years reflect the culture and traditions of the ancient people who first lived on this land. Photo credit: Andrew Black

In addition to the historical and cultural significance, Caja del Rio is home to diverse wildlife, including elk, mule deer, mountain lions, bears, and a variety of birds, including golden and bald eagles, and burrowing owls. The Caja is a critical piece of a wildlife migration corridor that runs from Colorado to Mexico­­—one of the most intact wildlife pathways in the nation.

Despite these important wildlife and cultural values, the Caja del Rio faces numerous threats­­—including wildfires, mining, poaching, vandalism, desecration of sacred sites, illegal dumping, and habitat fragmentation. That’s why a broad coalition of people­­—ranging from Pueblo governors, spiritual leaders, outdoor recreationists, and community advocates­­—have all come together to advocate for permanent protections for the Caja. This year, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Santa Fe County Commission, and the Santa Fe City Council all passed resolutions calling for federal protections so that this significant area will continue to thrive for generations to come.

A photo collage featuring a deer and a hawk; the rears of both animals facing the camera.
Many species call the Caja del Rio home. Photo credit: Andrew Black

Caja del Rio is currently managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. However, without permanent protections and increased funding for better management and law enforcement, the future of the Caja is at risk. Legislation currently being proposed could allow mining to desecrate these sacred lands and create new roads and infrastructure that will fragment this fragile wildlife habitat. Almost on a daily basis, ancient petroglyphs are defaced, trash is dumped and illegal shooting threatens wildlife and creates an unsafe environment for those who enjoy and want to preserve and protect the Caja.

We need permanent federal protections to safeguard this landscape so that future generations can continue to explore, learn and connect with these sacred lands. We need people to speak up to tell Congress and President Biden that diverse communities in northern New Mexico are advocating for permanent safeguards for the wildlife, ancient artifacts, lands, and waters of the Caja. If this natural and cultural treasure isn’t protected, a large part of our history and our very identity will be lost with it. It’s time to implement both legislative and administrative protections— whether by designating Caja del Rio as a National Conservation Area, Traditional Cultural Property, and/or a National Monument. These protections are essential so that Caja del Rio receives the funding and critical attention it so desperately needs and deserves.

Please speak up to save Caja del Rio.