Published: Wednesday, 03 April 2019 11:35
By Mark Allison, Executive Director, New Mexico Wild
March 30, 2019 | Santa Fe New Mexican
On March 12, the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act was signed into law. This package of public lands legislation established 13 new wilderness areas and expanded another in New Mexico totaling approximately 272,586 acres. It’s not every day — or even every decade — that we get to celebrate something like this. This represents the most new acreage of wilderness designated in New Mexico since 1980. (Think: the introduction of the fax machine, Pac-Man, the Empire Strikes Back and ABBA.)
Wilderness area designation is the conservation gold standard and the highest level of protection for federal public lands. It preserves access for traditional uses like hunting, fishing, hiking and camping. It protects cultural resources and sacred sites. It literally takes an act of Congress to create “Big W” Wilderness. Not an easy thing to do at any time, let alone in today’s political environment.
Yet, this legislation passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 92-8 and the House by a count of 363-62. This is where people found literal and figurative common ground, perhaps providing us with a model for a path forward for other important issues.
These designations bring the total amount of protected wilderness in New Mexico to approximately 2.5 percent of our total land area. But this isn’t really about the number of acres — it’s about these very particular wild and special places that are now protected from roads, mineral extraction and development. Not just today but for forever.
The new areas in the north contain incredible wildlands and waters that sustain the surrounding communities, and which are home to elk, deer, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, sandhill cranes and other wildlife. One of the centerpieces is Ute Mountain — a 10,000-foot-high volcanic cone that rises above the surrounding plain and overlooks the Taos Gorge.
Coalitions of pueblos and tribes, land grant heirs, acequia parciantes, ranchers, small-business owners, communities of faith, hunters, anglers and conservationists worked for more than a decade to get here. It was noticed — those in Washington, D.C., referred to these collaborative efforts as a “national model.”
At the same time, this couldn’t have happened without the farsightedness and perseverance of our congressional delegation. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich co-sponsored bills to protect these areas. Legislation to safeguard wilderness in Doña Ana and Taos counties was first introduced by former Sen. Jeff Bingaman in 2009. Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján sponsored the Taos County companion legislation in the House in the last Congress (with former representative and current Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham co-sponsoring), and new Reps. Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small supported the package bill.
Altogether, this legislation created 10 new wilderness areas in Doña Ana County and two new wilderness areas in Taos County. It also created the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area and expanded the existing Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area, both near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The legislation also reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has provided funding for public lands and open spaces in all 33 New Mexico counties since its creation.
Thanks to everyone who played roles large and small and to those who came before us with the vision that now is reality. Raise a glass — you deserve it. To really appreciate the beauty and wildness of these places, I encourage you to visit and experience them yourself. To learn more, you can go to www.nmwild.org.
This guest column originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Published: Friday, 22 March 2019 13:43
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.