Sites identified as potential Latino national parks

January 4, 2012

Continuing his push to identify more historic sites important to the nation’s Hispanics, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar touted a new report Wednesday that identified several sites tied to Latino heritage in Colorado and New Mexico — including one in his own back yard — that could one day become national parks or historic landmarks.

The report, requested by Salazar, is part of the secretary’s push to establish more national parks and historic sites tied to minorities. The Obama administration’s most senior Hispanic official and Colorado’s former senator and attorney general, Salazar visited his home state Wednesday to discuss the report, published last month. It identifies 3.26 million acres in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico that could become part of a national park or historic site.

Salazar is a native of the San Luis Valley, and his family has farmed in the region for five generations, according to his official biography. The region includes “nationally significant American Latino heritage sites” and Colorado’s oldest town and church, according to the National Park Service.

In October, Salazar said that the Park Service needed to identify more sites tied to minorities that could be added to the park system, noting that less than 3 percent of all national landmarks are designated for women, Latinos or African Americans. Noting that most Americans might understand the history of Latinos through the prism of the ongoing immigration debate, “There’s also a huge history of Latinos in the United States that’s never been told.”

In order to turn the tide, Salazar last year ordered agency officials to identify sites that could eventually join the nation’s network of parks and historic sites, including California’s “Forty Acres” site used by activist Cesar Chavez in the 1960s to raise awareness about migrant farm workers.

Although the Park Service may not conduct formal studies of potential new historic sites or parks without congressional authorization, the agency said that Salazar asked officials to conduct a “reconnaissance survey report” that compiled preliminary studies on resources and other relevant information. The findings may then be used by supportive lawmakers to make the final push to have a site added to the park system.

Salazar was joined Wednesday by Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). Aides to Udall and Bennet said they hope to continue exploring possible sites to be named as national parks. Udall is chairman of a Senate subcommittee on national parks.

Aides to the Republican-led House Natural Resources Committee, which also has oversight of national parks, said they had not reviewed the new report, but welcomed any new park proposals introduced by lawmakers.

While establishing Latino-themed national parks or historic sites might advance Salazar’s personal goals, establishing new parks or historic sites in two swing states with burgeoning Hispanic populations could also reap benefits for President Obama’s reelection campaign.

Obama won Colorado in 2008 in large measure because of Hispanic voters who overwhelmingly supported his campaign. In New Mexico, 69 percent of Hispanic voters backed Obama in 2008, helping him carry the state by more than 14 points.

But Obama’s approval among Hispanic Democrats nationwide has slipped, according to a Pew Hispanic Center poll released last month, dropping to 54 percent among Hispanics in part because of a 15-point dip among Hispanic Democrats. Despite the declines, Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics is higher than the 49 percent overall approval rating he received in last month’s Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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