February in New Mexico means two things to us: the spring winds are about to howl and our very favorite annual 4WD event is upon us. Truly our rite of spring, the Chile Challenge is held each February near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The event got its start in the early '90s and has grown to such extent that it is now capped at 350 vehicles. With a vendor's display, two delicious catered meals, an ice cream social, and a huge raffle, the Chile Challenge has all the trappings of most big 4WD events. But what continues to bring the people back in droves from near and far is the four wheeling. The Challenge has always been a trail-oriented event and its offerings in the rocky canyons and mountains along the Rio Grande run the gamut from mild to sublimely difficult. Admittedly, most of the event's fame is derived from the extremely challenging trails buried in the nearby ravines and arroyos but the mellower trails also attract devotees that return year after year.
The 2009 version of this long-running, early spring rock-fest was noticeably smaller than in year's past. The Challenge has been a well-established, early-season favorite for rock crawlers far and wide. The impact of long travel distances in these economically uncertain times definitely cut into attendance this year. The mood among the participants who did choose to attend was also noticeably somber. Many were wondering if the 2009 version would be their last opportunity to play in some of the best rock crawling canyons of the southwest.
When President Obama signed the huge Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 into law on March 30, one of the things the act created was the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument. This new monument encompasses almost all of the premier rockcrawling trails that have drawn the hundreds of hard core enthusiasts to the Chile Challenge since 1992. While the act specifically allows the event to continue, many long-time participants and even some of the hosting local club members aren't very optimistic. The provisions establishing the new monument read:
"The secretary may issue permits for special recreation events involving motorized vehicles within the boundaries of the monument to the extent the events do not harm paleontological resources; and subject to any terms and conditions that the secretary determines to be necessary."
With wording like that, how long will it be before extremists sue the BLM to stop the event, claiming "harm to the paleontological resources?" Logic won't play a large role in the decision, even the BLM's own website(http://www.blm.gov/nm/st/en/prog/recreation/las_cruces/trackways.html) acknowledges that there aren't any tracks for the public to see in the new monument. Any unexcavated tracks are buried deep under overlying rock layers. The BLM suggests visiting the museum in Albuquerque where the excavated tracks are stored.
It is quite ironic. The Chile Challenge itself is now in much more danger of being lost than the supposedly "imperiled" tracks which jeopardize this long-time rite of spring.