The Caja del Rio in northern New Mexico.

Public Lands Speak to the Rich Tapestry of Collective Experience

Reverend. Andrew Black is a minister at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe, the Founder of EarthKeepers 360, and the Public Lands Field Director for the National Wildlife Federation. Chaplain Jośe “Chappy” Villegas Sr. is a Catholic chaplain who served the Santa Fe and Albuquerque Police Departments, Santa Fe and Bernalillo County Sheriff Offices, State Police, and the New Mexico FBI. Villegas is the Mayordomo of the Valle de la Cieneguilla Land Grant.

In the words of Pope Francis, “we have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” Remembering where we came from is necessary to remain humble, responsible and selfless — and one way to demonstrate these virtues is by protecting our public lands and being responsible stewards of God’s creation.

Public lands are a uniquely American way of preserving creation. Our public lands speak to the rich and diverse tapestry of history, culture and sacred traditions that are deeply woven into our collective experience. A prime example of this complex tapestry is the Caja del Rio in northern New Mexico.

Spanning 105,000 acres, the Caja del Rio is one of the most ecologically rich and culturally significant landscapes in the U.S. As part of the Rio Grande wildlife corridor, the Caja plays a vital role in maintaining wildlife movement and providing critical habitat to a diverse range of plant and animal species.

Author Andrew Black with his daughter near petroglyphs in the Caja.

If you listen to the Caja, it tells the rich and powerful story of the diverse cultures of the American Southwest. For generations, the Caja has been the grounds for spiritual practices, hunting and herb gathering by various pueblos and Indigenous communities. Adorned with thousands of 13–17th century petroglyphs, the landscape recounts the cosmic story of the deeply sacred connection between New Mexico’s people, land, water and wildlife. The Caja also tells of the arrival of the Spanish on the historic trail of El Camino Real Tierra de Adentro, and the area remains essential to New Mexico’s land grants including the adjacent Valle de la Cieneguilla Land Grant. More modern exploration was also shaped by the Caja as America journeyed through the area on one of the most iconic stretches of Route 66. With incredible history, culture and spirituality, the Caja not only tells the complex story of the interconnectedness of the Land of Enchantment, but also speaks to our identity as New Mexicans.

Andrew Black and Chaplain Jose “Chappy” Villegas after working with volunteers to clean up the Caja.

Despite its tremendous value and beauty, the Caja faces numerous threats — ranging from climate change, wildfires, petroglyph theft, poaching, illegal dumping, development, and illegal off-road vehicle use.

Pope Francis’s words remind us that we must “care for our common home” and protect places like the Caja from irresponsible use so we can restore balance to this unique ecosystem and preserve our state’s rich culture, history, and spiritual traditions. As famed environmentalist Aldo Leopold noted, “we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Sacred places like the Caja remind us of our common humanity — we are beating hearts, eyes opened in amazement, and arms outstretched to the majesty of creation and wonder that lies before us. Let’s honor the Creator by showing that we are still capable of humility, responsible stewardship, and the selflessness needed to preserve such incredible landscapes for future generations.

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Would you like to write about public lands that you cherish? Please email Mary Jo Brooks at brooksm@nwf.org for guidelines. You’ll get this sticker as a thank you.

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National Wildlife Federation — Our Public Lands

National Wildlife Federation — Our Public Lands

The National Wildlife Federation public lands program advocates for our public lands and waters, wildlife and the right of every American to enjoy them.