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.