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U.S. Rep. Harry Teague among those who show up; Bingaman says there’s not yet a timeline for moving the legislation forward

By Heath Haussamen – NMPolititcs.net – 2/15/10 8:52 PM

Udall, left, listens as Bingaman speaks at today’s hearing. (Photo by Heath Haussamen)

Hundreds of people showed up in Las Cruces today for an official U.S. Senate hearing on a proposal from Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, D-N.M., to protect more than 300,000 acres of land in Doña Ana County.

Those in attendance included U.S. Rep. Harry Teague, D-N.M., who is in a tough re-election battle and said more today about the contentious wilderness proposal than he has publicly in the past.

While not taking a stand on the senators’ bill, Teague said he has a “commitment to hearing all sides.” He said he supports “efforts to conserve” the land but said he also has questions, including some about law enforcement access to roadless areas and flood control.

“No one group will – or should – get everything out of this process that they want,” Teague said during the hearing. “But in the end, what we do must be right for Doña Ana County and right for this nation.”

During the hearing, Bingaman said he believes “there is support in Doña Ana County to provide protection for lands.” Udall added that the bill “seeks to preserve… in perpetuity,” the beauty that is the draw for many people who live in the area.

Before the hearing, Bingaman said bill he and Udall introduced in September could change, and there’s not yet a timeline for moving it forward to a Senate vote.

“I think Sen. Udall and I want to make sure that we understand everyone’s perspective, and that’s what today is about,” Bingaman said.

Teague, during the hearing, called the Organ Mountains “the goose that lays the golden economic egg” and said “we’d better tend carefully to that goose.”

“The peaks of the Organ Mountains define Las Cruces, just as the Empire State Building defines New York City and Cowboys Stadium defines Dallas,” Teague said.

Chamber supports wilderness for Organ Mountains

The official Energy and Natural Resources Committee field hearing included testimony from people Bingaman invited to speak–but not other public input. Still, Bingaman, the committee’s chairman, made sure divergent opinions were represented. Several of those invited to give testimony expressed concerns or spoke against the bill.

That included the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce’s John Hummer, who said the chamber pledges its “full support” for designating the Organ Mountains as wilderness but has concerns about proposed wilderness designations for other areas in the county.

The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act would designate 259,000 acres as wilderness and 100,000 acres as national conservation areas. In addition to the Organ Mountains, land on and around the Robledo, Doña Ana and Potrillo mountains would be protected.

The bill would also release 16,350 acres currently designated as a wilderness study area along the county’s border with Mexico. That’s intended to address concerns that law enforcement patrols are hampered by rules against motorized vehicles entering the protected area.

Hummer said the chamber has concerns based on the area’s “economic demands” in addition to questions similar to those raised by Teague.

A big show of support

There was a big show of support at the hearing for the bill.

Las Cruces Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Thomas said during the hearing that the senators’ proposal has widespread community support and strikes the appropriate balance between differing opinions. She said the legislation is necessary to preserve the landscape, protect the water and grow the economy.

“I urge you to move forward with all possible haste,” Thomas said.

Before the hearing, New Mexico State University graduate student Martin Moses, who helped start a local chapter of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance on campus, spoke in favor of the legislation.

“It’s vital if we’re going to protect the land,” he said. “Las Cruces is growing by leaps and bounds.”

Las Cruces City Councilor Nathan Small, who works for the Wilderness Alliance, said the bill’s time has come.

“It’s been proven many times that this is what our community desires,” he said. “There are no more excuses. That’s what today is about, is taking that final step.”

Some protesters

The hearing was also well attended by people who oppose the legislation. And about 15 of them – including members of the Las Cruces TEA Party – stood outside NMSU’s Corbett Center and held up signs opposing the legislation before the hearing. Among those protesters was James Belver of Tularosa, who was gathering opposition signatures on a petition.

“We don’t want a government takeover of American land. That’s God-given land,” he said. “They think they have the authority to take it away. I could see some management, but not a complete lockout.”

Wilderness areas allow human recreation and horses, but not cars, bicycles or other mechanized equipment.