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By Tania Soussan / For the Albuquerque Journal
PUBLISHED: Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 12:05 am

“Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending our resources as we should – not a people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water.”

— Clinton Anderson

Some of the key pioneers of the national wilderness movement were inspired by New Mexico’s rugged and beautiful landscapes, so it’s only fitting that Albuquerque was chosen to host the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary celebration this fall.

“You cannot separate the history of the conservation movement in the United States, the creation of the Wilderness Act and the history of New Mexico,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “Our history is the history of the Wilderness Act.”

New Mexico is, after all, home to the Gila Wilderness, which became the nation’s first administratively designated wilderness area 90 years ago at the urging of conservationist Aldo Leopold, who was then working for the Forest Service in New Mexico. Leopold started seeing roads and vehicles in the forest in the 1920s and thought wilderness protection would preserve places for primitive travel. By the 1930s, he also saw a need to protect the land for ecological reasons.

Leopold inspired his friend, New Mexico Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, to tackle conservation issues in Congress. Anderson went on to become the Wilderness Act’s lead sponsor. He and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall – who originally was from Arizona but later chose New Mexico as his home – helped shepherd the act to passage in 1964.

The act, which was written by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society, went through more than 60 revisions over eight years before being passed and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964. The act protected 9.1 million acres of federal land and created the legal definition of wilderness, barring roads, vehicles, permanent structures and activities such as logging, drilling or mining.

“It is really important to take a step back, pause and really celebrate what was a pretty radical notion at that time,” said Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “The world had not seen legislation protect wild places for their intrinsic beauty.”

Today, there are almost 110 million acres of protected wilderness across the country, including roughly 1.6 million acres in 25 wilderness areas in New Mexico. Although development and mechanical vehicles, including bicycles, are banned, livestock grazing and all kinds of recreation – hunting and fishing, hiking and camping, rafting and kayaking and horseback riding – are allowed.

Allison said New Mexicans should be proud of the state’s role in the creation and evolution of the wilderness protection movement. “There’s a rich legacy here,” he said.

The committee planning the Wilderness 50 celebration acknowledged that legacy when it chose to have the national conference in Albuquerque.

The Oct. 15-19 conference will include speakers such as noted oceanographer Sylvia Earle and CBS News history commentator Douglas Brinkley. The celebration also will feature a free, family-friendly “Get Wild” Festival on Civic Plaza, a People’s Wilderness Film Gala and field trips.

But there’s no need to wait until then.

“The best way to celebrate the 50th is to get out and enjoy a wilderness,” said Karl Malcolm, regional wildlife ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service’s southwest region.

Wilderness offers several benefits in addition to the obvious preservation of undeveloped land. It provides habitat for rare plants and animals, protects watersheds that are the source of drinking water and ensures that future generations will have wild places to enjoy.

That permanent inventory of places to go to enjoy nature and solitude is vital to Malcolm.

“I draw my personal sustenance from the natural world. It puts me in my place. It makes me feel mortal,” he said.

“It’s humbling there was this foresight by conservation leaders working together 50 years ago,” Malcolm added. “We have lost so many wild landscapes over the last 50 years …This is a prime time for us to take a breath, pause and focus on what a dwindling resource wildness is.” New Mexico has such diverse, protected landscapes as the Sandia Wilderness on the doorstep of Albuquerque and the more remote Bisti/De-Na-Zin badlands in San Juan County. Still, there is much work to be done, said Henrich and Allison.

Heinrich, along with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has sponsored legislation to designate the 45,000-acre Columbine-Hondo area in Taos County as wilderness.

The Wilderness Alliance also is working to win permanent wilderness protection for wilderness study areas within the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in the Gila country and in the San Mateo Mountains west of Socorro, Allison said.