Las Cruces Sun-News
Sunday, March 23, 2008

organ mountains

In May of last year, this newspaper took an editorial stand in support of a federal wilderness designation for some of the most pristine and picturesque areas of our county — most now designated as wilderness study areas.

Much has happened since then, including the creation of a new group calling itself “People for Preserving our Western Heritage,” which was formed to represent the interests of ranching families in the area. That group has devised its own proposal intended to protect the land from development, while at the same time allowing for greater access than a federal wilderness designation might allow.

None of these new developments have convinced us that our original position was in error. We still believe that a wilderness designation is the most effective way to preserve these natural treasures for future generations. And, we believe many of the concerns expressed by ranchers can be mitigated working within the existing process.

The ranchers are seeking new designations that would be called “Special Preservation Areas” and “Rangeland Preservation Areas.” While we commend them for trying to find an innovative solution to the problem, we have serious doubts as to the willingness of politicians in Washington D.C. to create new federal designations just for us.

And, even if they were able to get a bill passed, we don’t believe it would provide the same level of protection or opportunity that a wilderness designation would.

We agree with Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, who has the Sandia Wilderness area near his community, and described wilderness designation as “the gold standard for protection of wild areas.”

We recognize that many ranching families in the eastern part of the county still harbor bitterness toward the federal government for the displacement of ranches in the 1950s to make way for the White Sands Missile Range. Beyond that, it’s probably safe to say that most ranchers are an independent lot who want as little interaction with the government as possible.

That’s not to suggest their concerns are invalid. We recognize that ranchers need to be able to get to cattle, stock tanks, fences and other critical infrastructure. But, we also recognize that the wilderness designation allows for the negotiation of those access issues.

Ultimately, we believe ranchers would be better off working within the existing system to ensure the access they need than attempting to devise new designations that do not now exist.

All of us want to protect these lands for future generations. We believe a federal wilderness designation is the most sure way to achieve that goal.