Regarding the article “Speakers oppose new wilderness areas in Sandias,” published in the Journal on Aug. 7, I write to clarify several points about the Cibola National Forest’s Forest Management Plan revision with respect to the Sandia Mountains.
While the Forest Service and the Sandia Landscape team did an excellent job facilitating the meeting, it is clear that some of the concerns expressed were based on confusion about the process itself.
In particular, the mountain bikers present were concerned about losing their access to biking trails if any additional wilderness is designated in the foothill areas abutting the Sandia Wilderness.
While it is true that mountain biking is not allowed in designated wilderness areas per the Wilderness Act of 1964, there is no proposal by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance to expand the current boundaries of the Sandia Wilderness or within the Sandia Ranger District.
The Forest Service is not designating wilderness during this process nor is it legally able to do so administratively. The creation of designated wilderness – the gold standard of land conservation – requires an act of Congress. (A tough and rare thing to accomplish to be sure!)
The Forest Service is, however, legally obligated to inventory land for wilderness characteristics, to make a management decision about those areas through the planning process, and to eventually recommend areas, if any, to Congress for possible designation.
Each step of the planning process is subject to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, meaning the Forest Service must take the public’s opinion into account and respond substantively to its concerns.
Designated wilderness is explored and enjoyed by a variety of groups, including hikers, backpackers, equestrians, birders, hunters and anglers. In addition to affording us these life-affirming recreational opportunities, wilderness honors New Mexico’s history and cultural heritage; protects our watersheds and air quality; provides critical habitat for threatened species and supports biodiversity; and promotes tourism and much-needed job creation.
Wilderness is also important as an idea – to know that there are still places that exist that are essentially untrammeled – that knowledge enriches all of humanity, whether we personally visit it or not. But visit it we do – how fortunate we are to have the Sandia wilderness as our backyard!
With just 2 percent of New Mexico designated as wilderness, there are numerous opportunities outside of wilderness areas for those who prefer to enjoy the outdoors on a mountain bike or off-road vehicle.
While the Wilderness Alliance is an unapologetic defender of New Mexico’s wild places and seeks to protect additional deserving national public lands currently under threat, I want to reiterate for those with concerns about losing existing mountain biking trails in the Sandias that there is a difference between the land management agency identifying potential areas as they are required to do and a formal proposal and campaign by citizen conservationists to actually pursue new wilderness designations.
We strive to work with mountain bikers and other stakeholders to craft proposal boundaries and acreages taking into consideration existing mountain bike trails and other uses. And while we are not pursuing additional wilderness in the Sandias, I hope our mountain bike friends will support us in our efforts to protect the increasingly rare wild places in other parts of the state.
We can’t afford to miss out on opportunities to preserve places that provide more value when managed and used in gentler ways. Thanks to everyone for caring about our national public lands and for participating in public meetings, submitting comments and considering a balance between recreation and the long-term importance of having wild areas for this and future generations for humans and other species alike.