About Caja del Rio
Caja del Rio is an arid, lower-elevation plateau located outside of Santa Fe in northern New Mexico. The area spans around 105,000 acres and features flat and rolling volcanic terrain as well as numerous steep cinder cones that rise above the plains. It is bordered by the Rio Grande River to the northwest, Bandelier National Monument to the west, and the rugged La Bajada cliffs to the south.
Here's what The Climate Atlas tells us about Caja del Rio:
Conservation Opportunities: Unprotected BLM and Forest Service Lands
The Caja del Rio area consists of five parcels of unprotected federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (beige) and the U.S. Forest Service (green).
Context Layer: Important Management Areas
Caja del Rio contains several important federal management areas, including two BLM ACECs (Areas of Critical Environmental Concern): La Cienega and Santa Fe Ranch (orange). ACECs are areas that require special management attention to protect important natural, scenic, or cultural resources.
The region also includes a Forest Service Inventoried Roadless Area: Arroyo Montroso (bright green). Roadless areas are undeveloped areas that meet the qualifications of wilderness under the U.S. Wilderness Act.
In addition, Caja del Rio borders the protected lands of Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos National Laboratory to the west (purple).
Context Layer: Tribal Lands
Caja del Rio borders several different federally recognized tribal lands, including the Kewa Pueblo and the Tesuque Pueblo (light green).
Model: Composite Model
The Composite Model indicates the importance of an area across a range of all six conservation objectives, including ecological/biodiversity and climate indicators.
The Composite Model for Caja del Rio is high.
Indicator: Ecological Intactness
Ecological Intactness indicates the degree to which a given location remains in a natural state.
Although Caja del Rio is right outside of Santa Fe, it is relatively ecologically intact.
Indicator: Climate Resilience
Areas with high Climate Resilience contribute to the ability of species to adapt to climate change through both local and long-distance movements.
The data show that climate resilience in the Caja del Rio region is high.
Conservation Opportunities: Model Results
The unprotected lands within Caja del Rio comprise around 104,939 acres and contain 1.21 megatons of carbon in the biomass and soil (above and below ground).
Of the total acreage in the region, 36,283 acres are in the top 20% of the Composite Model, and 43,095 acres are in the top 20% of the Biodiversity Model.
This means these acres of Caja del Rio are among the top 20% of all unprotected BLM and Forest Service lands with the highest conservation value in the contiguous U.S.
- The area ranks high on ecological and biodiversity indicators.
- It has a high level of ecological intactness.
- It plays a key role in helping species adapt to climate change.
- Proposed infrastructure development is a direct threat to this intact but unprotected landscape.
Why It Matters
Ecosystem and Wildlife Diversity
The diverse habitats in Caja del Rio, from the open desert to its alpine environment, make it a unique home for many different life zones and species. The region is dominated by piñon and juniper savanna and woodland with areas of sage and mixed grasses.
The relative intactness of these ecosystems makes Caja del Rio one of the most ecologically rich wildlife corridors in New Mexico.
Animals living in the area include black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, elk, porcupines, jackrabbits, and the Gunnison’s prairie dog, which conservation groups are pushing to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The area is also home to golden and bald eagles as well as several species of lizards and snakes, such as the desert kingsnake.
Cultural and Historical Significance
The Caja del Rio plateau is home to dozens of ancestral Native American village sites and is known for its abundance of petroglyphs and artifacts. It remains a place of spiritual significance for the residents of many of New Mexico’s nearby pueblos.
Historically, Native American and later European travelers relied on the plateau’s rugged dirt pathways as an important transportation route. Today, the area’s trails are used recreationally by mountain bikers and horse riders, and Caja del Rio Canyon (known locally as Diablo Canyon) is a popular rock climbing area.
In the mid-20th century, the federal government began managing portions of the area as a community grazing allotment under the Santa Fe National Forest and the BLM Taos Field Office. The area is also home to a herd of wild mustangs and is a federally designated Wild Horse Territory.
Caja del Rio is under threat from plans for a proposed new highway leading to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which would require utility lines and a massive bridge. This expansive new infrastructure would permanently fragment habitats and drastically alter the landscape of this unprotected area.
The area also faces ongoing threats from illegal dumping, wildlife poaching, unregulated shooting, off-road misuse, and vandalism of sacred sites.
- In August 2021, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order that aims to preserve almost a third of New Mexico’s public land from development by 2030.
- This is in line with the Biden administration’s “30 x 30” initiative, which sets a similar target at the federal level.
- Caja del Rio should be considered a priority area for protection under both these initiatives.