Julian Gonzales’ family has lived near the Caja del Rio plateau in northern New Mexico for generations, long before it was even part of the United States. Located just west of Santa Fe, the high desert plain is ringed by white cliffs, with the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo Mountains rising in the distance. Much of the 84,000 acre area is part of the Santa Fe National Forest. Gonzales says this rugged land is practically in his DNA. Hunting, camping, collecting firewood and pinion nuts, are traditions that run deep.
“I get butterflies just thinking about spending so much time here,” he says with a smile.
He recalls the legend of his grandfather taking a huge mule deer buck when he was a young man. Decades later, his father did the same. When Gonzales was 13, it was his turn.
“I wanted to be part of that story. And I became part of that story. Now it is my son’s turn.”
Gonzales has made it his mission to work with a broad coalition of people to ensure that that this land is protected and accessible to all. He serves on a citizen’s advisory commission for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and says he wants to see everyone – whether it’s bird watchers, hunters, cattle ranchers or cyclists— enjoy this region for generations to come.
“We call this the U.S. ranch and it’s for all of us to use. The Quarter Horse Association runs a 100 mile race here. The Hunt Club chases a mechanical fox here. Let them all come and enjoy this wonderful place.”
Part of his work is to make sure wildlife migration corridors remain protected. Last year he helped install wildlife-friendly fences, and he hopes to do more of that work in the future. He also wants to make sure his voice is heard in the forest planning process.
“It’s going to be important for the Hispanic community to weigh in on future decisions about what will happen to our public lands. People need to show up at meetings. We want to make sure this is protected for our grandchildren and our great grandchildren.”
For Gonzalez, the Caja del Rio not only represents family traditions but was a place of personal healing. As a veteran who served in the U.S. military for 27 years — including a stint in Iraq–he said it was spending time on this land that helped restore him.
“When I came back, I needed some space to cure the demons that I had inside me– that I brought back with me. Stuff happens in war that imprints on you that you don’t want to share. So I came back out here, in the Caja, and found an inner peace. It purified my soul.”