As a fly fisherman with a weakness for high mountain creeks, I imagine sometimes that whoever designed New Mexico’s flag was inspired by her state fish. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout was painted from a more spectacular palette than the flag’s simple red and yellow. Panza colorada (red belly), as the fish is known in Spanish, shows every possible way the two colors can blend together. Scrutinize the olive back and the scales, and tell me you don’t see mutations of yellow or red in almost every cell. I guess one could say that the cutty is but one reflection of sunny-hued New Mexico – its cactus flowers, horny toads, and volcanic sunsets - as well as the flag that flies over it.
In 1541, a scouting party of the Spanish explorer Francisco de Coronado discovered a Rio Grande specimen near Pecos, New Mexico, becoming the first Europeans to lay eyes on a New World trout. When I was a boy, it was possible to catch one in the Rio Chiquito near my grandmother’s home in Talpa. No more. Since Coronado, and for many of the same reasons native trout have declined everywhere, the Rio Grande cutthroat has tracked an inexorable and narrowing orbit around the toilet hole.
One of the few places where the Rio Grande cutthroat remains strong is the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area northeast of Taos. Essentially the roof of New Mexico, this block of steep mountains stops a lot of storm clouds and extracts enough precipitation to feed three cutthroat stream systems. Federal legislation (S 776 and HR 1683) has been introduced to formally designate Columbine Hondo as a wilderness area. After a long wait, the bill had its first hearing today.
Beneficial reasons for opposing the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Act don’t seem to exist. Columbine Hondo is extremely rough and unfragmented country, indicating a water cycle of the highest integrity, and fisheries managers see promise in the fact that rainbow and brown trout are still somewhat at bay. The west slope of this country is an important game corridor between lowlands and mountains. In combination, these factors amount to powerful economic engine for northern New Mexico, especially in current times as tourism grows ever more important.
The most pernicious threat to the Columbine Hondo is road construction, which would gradually degrade cutthroat habitat and drive the fish toward oblivion. Some might not understand why this would be such a tragedy. Time marches on, they might think, our destiny is reached at a price.
In the context of what the northern New Mexico landscape has represented for millennia to all life forms residing there, this statement is easy to refute. Like the rest of the state, the Columbine Hondo is unique for its history and as a source of recreation and spiritual sustenance. I feel in my gut that we are correct in valuing such attributes, for the simple fact that a leaf cannot exist without a root.
Our history and destiny are inextricable. We destroy one at the expense of the other.