On the morning I heard that President Obama designated the Rio Grande del Norte as a national monument, I had joined about forty people for the annual stocking of Rio Grande cutthroat fingerlings - New Mexico’s state fish - in the Rio Grande gorge. My compatriots hadn’t yet heard the great news, and it was no small joy watching smiles pop up around me when I announced what had happened.
Today, almost exactly one year later, I found myself at the same place for the same purpose, with at least twice as many people. School children from the nearby towns of Questa and Red River lined up to get their bags of baby trout. There was a couple from Colorado who saw the event advertised on Facebook. A father was applying for his elk tag a couple weeks ago, saw a news flash on the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish website, and decided to take his 5 year old son out of school.
We gathered at the La Junta trailhead, located within the boundaries of the monument. La Junta, in this context, is a Spanish term signifying the confluence of the Red River with the Rio Grande. Literally, these words mean “the joining”. A junta sometimes carries a military connotation often associated with death squads. The trout gang at the trailhead was quite the contrast, a life squad of the best kind.
To me, our group recalled the essence of what, by sheer weight of public desire, made the monument a reality. Over the last several years, a critical mass of New Mexicans - individuals, traditional cultures, businesses (btw: Nick Streit of Taos Fly shop says his business is better than ever since the monument was designated), farmers, sportsmen, veterans groups, and elected officials – spoke with such an optimistic and unified voice so as to compel the President of the United States to act on their behalf. In this modern America, that kind of thing doesn’t just happen.
For more on the shot in the arm that Rio Grande del Norte has been for the northern New Mexico economy, check out this link. Basically, according to the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, the national monument increased the town of Taos lodgers' tax revenue by 21 percent in the second half of 2013. Gross receipts revenue is up for accomodations and food service, perhaps due to the 40 percent increase in visitors to the monument, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Upon reaching the river, I placed my bag of trout in a bankside pool to allow the water temperature to normalize with the native flow. The fish appeared excited. In a fit of anthropomorphizing I imagined them knowing that they were now residents of a national monument.
I opened my trout bag and sank it beneath the surface to let the fingerlings wander free. The Rio Grande has been devoid of its native trout for going on a century, as brown trout and rainbows have taken over. Northern pike are in there too, something I still can’t stomach.
Perhaps the weight of being pioneers was something the baby cutthroats weren’t prepared to bear just yet. But as I knew they would, they crept closer to the mouth of the bag and like so many fledglings at the edge of a nest, swam into the grass near the bank. Soon they were comfortable enough to come out and eat midges off the surface.
The Rio Grande is a crucible, a ferment of evolution as unforgiving as it is beautiful. We see this evolution in the Rio gorge itself, the footprint of flood, the very core of the earth. We see it in my little cutthroats, in petroglyphs of deer and birds scratched on basalt by the ancients. Since the arrival of Europeans, we’ve seen it in rope-haltered burros, acequia irrigation culture, column-shift pickup trucks, and in refugees from rat races and wars. Almost immediately upon setting root or foot on the Rio Grande del Norte, all life comes under its profound influence.
As my fingerlings swam away, this thought filled me with terror. They were like children wandering into a world that I prayed would be kind to them while knowing that the world couldn’t hear. But as children, they extended my view into the future in positive ways as well. What if these Rio Grande cutthroat trout grew up and procreated? What if, in my own son’s lifetime, they become common in their namesake river? Now more than ever, this is possible.