President Trump signs bill creating wilderness in Doña Ana County

March 12, 2019

By Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES - President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed into law a bill that will create nearly one-quarter of a million acres of wilderness in Doña Ana County.

The new wilderness designations — the highest level of federal protection — are created within an existing national monument, called Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.

Trump signed the legislation — the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, formerly known as the Natural Resources Management Act. It's a multi-pronged measure that had a lot of bipartisan support across the states.

The bill also creates the two wilderness areas within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in northern New Mexico: the Cerro del Yuta (Ute Mountain) and Rio San Antonio.

Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., had been big proponents of creating wilderness in New Mexico. And they applauded the bill's enactment.

"The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and the Río Grande del Norte national monuments are two of New Mexico's most special places — and these undisturbed areas within them deserve the special protections that wilderness designation confers," Udall said in a news release. "These spaces are stunning landscapes, rich with culture and history, and important economic drivers for New Mexico’s thriving tourism and outdoor recreation economy."

The legislation creates 241,554 acres of wilderness in Doña Ana County — designating about half of the OMDP national monument as wilderness. One of the key distinctions about wilderness is that most mechanized travel, including vehicles and bicycles, is not allowed. However, in the newly enacted law, some existing dirt roads are "cherry-stemmed" or excluded from the official wilderness boundaries, meaning those roads can still be driven.

"I'm deeply thankful to the diverse coalition of stakeholders from northern and southern New Mexico who worked for so many years to make the Río Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments a reality. Both serve as national models of community-driven, landscape-scale conservation,” Heinrich said in a news release.

Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., also voted for the legislation.

For several decades, swaths of public lands in Doña Ana County have been labeled as wilderness study areas, or WSAs — regions reviewed for their potential to become official federal wilderness. The intention was that, after a series of land studies, Congress would take action on whether to grant them full-fledged wilderness status — considered the highest level of federal protection.

At least until recent weeks, Congress never acted on the WSAs, leaving them in a state of limbo. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, administratively, has treated these lands more stringently than other non-WSA public lands, though not with the same degree of strictness that a full-fledged wilderness designation requires. But the bill signed into law Tuesday resolves that state of limbo.

Some critics had opposed the wilderness bill for years over concerns about possible impacts to ranching and grazing, even though grazing of livestock continues to be allowed under a wilderness designation. Several conservation groups had expressed support for creating wilderness.

Michael Casaus, New Mexico state director of The Wilderness Society, said the bill's enactment builds upon decades of work to protect wild lands.

"New Mexicans are fortunate to not only see greater protections for our public lands, but also because we have a congressional delegation who continues to work together to protect wild places for future generations," he said in a news release. "Our state relies heavily on our outdoor recreation economy and we must do all we can to ensure proper management of our public lands continues to be a priority."

Wilderness is created in portions of the Sierra de Las Uvas Mountains and nearby Broad Canyon, located south of Hatch; a portion of the Robledo Mountains, located northwest of Las Cruces; a portion of the Organ Mountains (not including portions of the mountains that exist on U.S. military acreage); and the Potrillo Mountains, located in southwest Doña Ana County. Slivers of proposed wilderness in the Potrillo Mountains area exist in Luna County.

A BLM official has said the law's enactment will mean that a planning process will take place in Doña Ana County, possibly starting next year, for the new wilderness areas.

This article first appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News.

Public lands package protects 275,000 acres in NM

By Scott Turner | Albuquerque Journal
February 26, 2019

Almost 275,000 acres in New Mexico would be designated a wilderness area under a public lands package passed by the U.S. House on Tuesday night.

Two of the wilderness areas designated by the National Resources Management Act are within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, while 10 areas are within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

The two areas within Rio Grande del Norte National Monument are the Cerro del Yuta (Ute Mountain) and Rio San Antonio. The package also includes the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area comprising approximately 7,242 acres and a 2,250-acre expansion of the existing Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area near the Four Corners region. A total of 273,000 acres were designated wilderness areas in the state.

All three U.S. Representatives from New Mexico – Deb Haaland, Xochitl Torres Small and Ben Ray Luján – voted in favor of the package, which now goes to President Donald Trump for consideration. It passed the House by a 363-62 vote.

“The Public Lands Package is clearly in line with our values to protect our natural heritage, our resources, and ensuring future generations can enjoy the places we hold dear in New Mexico. My vote in support of the Public Lands Package will reflect these values while standing with the 99,000 New Mexicans employed in the outdoor recreation economy,” Haaland said in a statement.

Haaland said on the House floor that the package would help the state “address the challenges of climate change.”

The package had the support of U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall. Both crafted parts of the legislation, as did Haaland. The package of bills originated in the Senate, where it passed 92-8.

Heinrich and Udall supported the provision to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which they said invested more than $312 million in New Mexico to protect public lands and open spaces, and increase recreational opportunities across the state, helping to bolster a $9.9 billion outdoor recreation industry.

“Authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund will help ensure that New Mexicans have access to safe drinking water, and our rivers, lakes and streams are protected for us all,” Luján said. “I’m also incredibly proud to have helped shepherd the passage of the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act, which ensures that two of New Mexico’s most stunning landscapes are protected for future generations.”

Included in the package was the Every Kid Outdoors Act, a bill co-sponsored by Heinrich and Sen. Lamar Alexander. Torres Small was also a sponsor in the House. It will provide America’s fourth-graders and their families free entrance to America’s public lands, waters and historic sites, including national parks. The package also reauthorizes the Rio Puerco Watershed Management Program, which facilitates federal and state agencies, tribal communities and local communities working together to reduce sediment and control erosion on the watershed.

“We are ecstatic that some of New Mexico’s best remaining wild places are one step closer to permanent protection so that future generations can experience the richness of our shared cultural and natural heritage” said Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild.

BLM defers sale of oil, gas leases in Chaco Canyon area

By Rebecca Moss | Santa Fe New Mexican
February 8, 2019

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management reversed course Friday, saying certain land near Chaco Culture National Historical Park would no longer be offered at an oil and gas lease sale in March.

Environmental advocates, tribal groups and Democratic lawmakers said last week they opposed the agency’s move to auction off land for oil and gas development within 10 miles of the culturally sensitive site.

The park is considered an epicenter for Native heritage, replete with ancient archaeological ruins, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Opponents of the sale have said federal officials failed to complete a land management plan that would in part study how deep horizontal fracturing would impact the region.

Lawmakers also criticized the Department of the Interior for moving forward with the sale amid the federal government shutdown and protest from Native stakeholders.

“We believe it is best to defer these parcels at this time,” Tim Spisak, New Mexico state director for the BLM, said in a news release Friday. “We will continue to gather information to inform the decisions we make about leasing in this area.”

About 1,500 acres will be excluded the federal lease sale, which is scheduled for March 28.

It is the third time the Trump administration has planned to sell parcels near Chaco Canyon and then deferred the leases.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., lobbed criticism at the Interior Department last week for planning to lease parcels near Chaco. The BLM is now taking the appropriate course of action, he said in a statement Friday, but “this stop-start, shoot-from-the-hip approach is not sustainable or in anyone’s best interest.”

Udall said the administration should develop a sustainable management plan that would prevent any land within 10 miles of the national park from being used for oil and gas extraction until the area can be studied to consider how the industry would impact public health and cultural sites.

Earlier this week, New Mexico state senators introduced legislation that calls for a four-year moratorium on all new fracking leases in the state. This period, the senators said, would give state agencies time to study health, seismic vulnerabilities, water contamination and environmental impacts from fracking.

The legislation also would require extensive reporting from numerous state agencies related to fracking, from worker injuries to greenhouse gas trends.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association has said that fracking is a well-studied technology and that a pause on permitting, particularly amid an industry boom, would devastate New Mexico’s economy.

The BLM’s March lease sale will still offer 37 parcels in Sandoval, San Juan, Rio Arriba and Lea counties. A public protest period begins Monday.

This article first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

U.S. Senate bill creates 13 wilderness areas in New Mexico

By Rebecca Moss | Santa Fe New Mexican
February 12, 2019

A sweeping public lands conservation package that passed the U.S. Senate on Tuesday with overwhelming support from both parties would establish 13 new wilderness areas in New Mexico, the largest land designation in a single year since 1980.

The Natural Resources Management Act, including 170 bills with provisions reaching into every state, passed on a vote of 92-8.

Together, the measures would permanently reauthorize the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund — which draws revenues for conservation efforts from offshore oil and gas drilling — and protect 1.3 million acres as wilderness, including more than 270,000 acres in New Mexico within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Doña Ana County and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County.

The wilderness designation, which prohibits roads and motorized vehicles, would still allow for recreation, hunting, livestock grazing and law enforcement.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said in a news release that the Land and Water Conservation Fund has “invested over $312 million to help protect our most cherished public lands, spur job creation and fuel our $9.9 billion outdoor recreation economy, a key economic driver in the state that employs 99,000 New Mexicans.”

The public lands package has broad support in the House of Representatives, where it faces a vote after the mid-February recess, and White House officials have indicated the president will sign it, according to the Washington Post.

Wilderness preservation has been the subject of ongoing conflict between Democrats and the Trump administration. Environmentalists feared early in President Donald Trump’s term that his administration would reduce wilderness designations in New Mexico, but that didn’t happen.

Conservation advocates hailed the bipartisan effort.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled that these special places are one step closer to being protected in their wild and natural states, providing New Mexicans and all Americans with ample opportunities to escape to the outdoors,” said Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild, in a news release Tuesday.

“Given that New Mexico is home to the nation’s first designated wilderness area, it is gratifying to see that tradition of conservation and responsible stewardship of our public lands continue,” he said.

According to the organization, polls conducted in 2016 showed 78 percent of residents in Doña Ana County support wilderness protections in Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and that 93 percent of registered voters in Taos County believe wilderness is important to them.

Udall’s news release said lodgers tax revenue in Taos increased by 21 percent a year after designation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. “In addition,” the statement said, “gross-receipts revenue to businesses in Taos County in the accommodations and food service sector rose 8.3 percent in the second half of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012.”

The public land measures that passed Tuesday, and earlier iterations, have faced strong support and sponsorship from New Mexico Democrats in Congress, including former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who introduced legislation in 2009 to create wilderness in Doña Ana County.

A provision in the Natural Resources Management Act would permanently designate watershed management in the Rio Puerco Basin, which spans 4.7 million acres in New Mexico. This would continue collaborative effort to restore wetlands areas by resolving flood damage, controlling erosion and increasing vegetation.

A 12-year-old management program for the Rio Puerco Basin, critical for flow into the Middle Rio Grande Basin, was set to expire in March.

The provision to maintain the program was introduced by Udall and fellow U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.

“By the end of the last century, decades of poor land management and pollution combined with highly erodible soils created immense difficulties all along the Rio Puerco floodplain,” Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a statement.

“With a collaborative, comprehensive approach,” Heinrich added, “it is possible to make real progress in restoring the land and water in this watershed that is so central to communities in Western New Mexico.”

This article first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.