December 15, 2010
Ah, wilderness; ah, politics …
The New Mexican
Posted: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 – 12/15/10
Hope springs eternal, as Alexander Pope wryly noted so long ago — and among New Mexico and national environmentalists, darned if hope isn’t lurching along in the wake of Republican victories in last month’s election.
The elephants are set to run rampant in the House of Representatives, and their filibustering strength in the Senate will be greater in the coming Congress. But will the new Capitol Hill lineup really lead to wholesale trashing of conservationists’ recent reforms? And should they set aside their preservation wish list until Democrats are back in charge of both chambers?
Much may depend on the sense of shame among Congress members bought by Corporate America. Many are aware of the taint they’re carrying to Washington, thanks to the obscene amounts of money it took to win them their seats; some, perhaps, might already be wondering what token measure they could pass to give themselves a good-guy sheen.
Well, we can think of one right off the bat: a proposal for federal-wilderness designation down in Southern New Mexico. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall have been trying to get a quarter-million acres in the Organ and Potrillo mountains set aside as wilderness.
The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act got unanimous approval last summer from the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee — chaired by Bingaman. Ten members of that committee are Republican, and 13 Democrat, so the spirit of bipartisanship enjoyed a brief flight. Since then, though, the Senate and the House have had plenty more on their plate — so if the bill makes it through this harried Congress, we’d be surprised; still, stranger things have happened …
As Bingaman notes, New Mexico’s congressional delegation has been trying since the Reagan days to protect the spectacular landscapes at the southern end of our state. Republican power-player Pete Domenici was part of the effort.
In recent years, there’s been a strong challenge to the idea — on, uh, national-security grounds: The area in question comes close to the Mexican border; the Fortress America bloc argues that wilderness protection would make it prime smuggling territory.
To ease jittery nerves, our senators have provided for a five-mile-wide strip of non-wilderness, which the Border Patrol, the National Guard, the Army and assorted vigilantes could patrol to their hearts’ content.
Progress of this proposal, now or in the next Congress, also could depend on Mexico: If violence gets worse there, alarms could be raised by incoming Gov. Susana Martínez, who makes much of her border-protecting prowess, and Rep. Steve Pearce, whose district includes lots of borderland.
But today’s reality is empty wilderness: Illegal immigration into New Mexico is down to a trickle — and the border itself, sadly, is turning from faint fences and openness into a fiercely fortified line.
So the Bingaman-Udall bill sits there, a measure both parties could claim as a fine environmental trophy to be waved in campaigns a year or so down the road.
We’d love to see this wilderness bill wiggle through the confusion certain to grow in days to come — but if it doesn’t, it could be a call to conscience for the next Congress.