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No ‘No More Wilderness’



Published: November 23, 2009

In 2003, Gale Norton, then the secretary of the interior, and Michael Leavitt, then the governor of Utah, struck a deal that removed federal protections from about 2.6 million acres of public land in Utah that the Clinton administration had designated as potential wilderness. At the same time, Ms. Norton disavowed her department’s longstanding authority to identify, study and recommend new areas for wilderness protection.

This “no more wilderness” policy, as it came to be known, exposed huge swaths of federal land throughout the Rocky Mountain West to oil and gas drilling and other commercial uses.

President Obama’s interior secretary, Ken Salazar, has reversed many of the Bush administration’s damaging environmental policies. Maddeningly, however, the “no more wilderness” policy is still in place. It is past time for Mr. Salazar to renounce it.

Representative Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from upstate New York, and 89 other House members have written to Mr. Salazar urging him to reject the Norton-Leavitt arrangement — a back-room deal with no standing in law — and restore interim protections for the land in Utah until Congress can decide whether to protect the area permanently. (Mr. Hinchey has introduced a bill — the Red Rock Wilderness Act — that would confer wilderness protections on those acres, plus about 7 million more.)

More broadly, they want Mr. Salazar to reject the destructive philosophy underlying the Norton-Leavitt arrangement by reasserting the interior secretary’s responsibility to help protect America’s fragile landscapes from oil and gas leasing, off-road vehicle use and mining.

Under the law, only Congress can designate permanent wilderness — areas where all commercial activity is prohibited. But Congress also authorized the Interior Department to periodically inventory federal lands to identify those with “wilderness characteristics” and to give them interim protections until Congress can make the final decision. These areas are known as wilderness study areas.

It is this authority that Ms. Norton said she did not want and that Mr. Salazar should promptly reclaim.

Victory for Chaco Canyon

BLM regional oil, gas lease sale smallest in years

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press Writer
© 2009 The Associated Press

Oct. 19, 2009

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Bureau of Land Management this week is holding the smallest oil and gas lease sale the region has seen in five years after it declined to offer more than 100 parcels nominated by the industry, leaving only 51 up for grabs in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

“We had a lot of parcels that we started with, and it tells us that the process in place does in fact work,” BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel said Monday. “The environmental assessments do a good job of screening out parcels that shouldn’t go forward.”

A dozen parcels near a national park and proposed wilderness in New Mexico did end up on the auction list, but the agency has since pulled them from Wednesday’s sale.

The New Mexico BLM office is withholding four of those parcels because they’re waiting for guidance from agency officials in Washington, D.C. The question is whether there should be a buffer between oil and gas development and more than 560 square miles in southern New Mexico that the state’s congressional delegation wants to protect as wilderness and a national conservation area.

Conservation groups had complained that the four parcels — covering more than 7,300 acres — were only seven miles from the proposed Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks wilderness area. Federal legislation was introduced just last month to protect the area’s granite mountain peaks, ancient lava flows and grasslands.

The BLM also yanked eight parcels covering more than 10,000 acres near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico because the Hopi tribe of Arizona protested that it had not been consulted about offering the public land for energy development.

Usually critical of the BLM’s management of oil and gas development, conservation groups said Monday the agency did the right thing by removing the dozen parcels from the lease sale.

Hummel said the agency always thoroughly reviews parcels nominated by the oil and gas industry to ensure they meet guidelines for leasing. She pointed to the eight parcels near Chaco, saying they had been deferred four times before so the agency could consult with local Indian tribes and the National Park Service.

Whether the removed parcels will be offered later depends on the outcome of talks with the Hopi tribe and how the agency decides to deal with the proposed wilderness and conservation areas, Hummel said.

Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said fallout from oil and gas leasing near national parks in Utah and a court decision earlier this year about development on New Mexico’s Otero Mesa are setting precedents that will force the BLM to carefully consider the impacts of drilling on public land.

Newcomer said political and public support for areas like the Organ Mountains will also play a role.

“There are a lot of people who are saying, ‘Preserve this area.’ You have the delegation, the governor, everybody coming out for it,” he said. “They have to look at that as an option — a no-lease, no-drill option.”

New Mexico Is a Leader in Protecting Wilderness

Albuquerque Journal

Friday, November 13, 2009

By Nathan Newcomer
Associate Director, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance

“Land of Enchantment” was added to New Mexico’s license plates in 1941, a nickname that beautifully captures the diversity and richness of our state — the richness of our history and many cultures and the incredible diversity of our landscapes and ecosystems.

For decades now, those we New Mexicans elect to represent us in Congress have been working to gain the strongest possible protections for the wildest, most natural areas on the public lands across our state: legal protection as wilderness.

We recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of one important step in this work, for it was on Oct. 30, 1984, that President Ronald Reagan signed the “San Juan Basin Wilderness Protection Act” into law. That law is notable as the first to extend legal protection under the Wilderness Act to lands in our state administered by the Bureau of Land Management — what is now the nearly 40,000-acre Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, an eerie, almost otherworldly landscape of badlands in San Juan County.

New Mexicans have long played leading roles in shaping America’s national policy to preserve wilderness areas. Eighty-five years ago this past summer Aldo Leopold, then an official in the Albuquerque regional office of the U.S. Forest Service, successfully advocated establishment of the world’s first wilderness area — the Gila Wilderness near Silver City.

Our longtime U.S. senator, Clinton P. Anderson, became the lead sponsor of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the historic act of Congress that established our national policy for wilderness protection. Forty-five years ago this past September, Anderson stood behind President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Rose Garden as he signed the Wilderness Act. Nearby was the lead sponsor of the legislation in the House of Representatives, Rep. John P. Saylor from Pennsylvania.

The 1984 law that extended Wilderness Act protection to the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness continued that bipartisan tradition, supported by our senators from both political parties — then-Sen. Pete Domenici and Sen. Jeff Bingaman. In the House, the lead sponsor was then-Rep. Bill Richardson, and the author of the consensus version in the committee process was then-Rep. Manuel Lujan, who later served as Secretary of the Interior.

All this New Mexico wilderness history illustrates important facts about how we go about protecting wilderness areas in this country. First, the lands that are designated as wilderness are federal lands. Second, these decisions are made by Congress, in a process that gives greatest weight to the views of the members of Congress from the state involved. Third, these decisions are wide open to public suggestions, which may come through planning processes of the agency administering the lands involved or, of course, as input from ordinary citizens like you or me to those who represent us in Congress. Not everyone may agree with any particular decision, but all have every opportunity to have their opinions heard.

The history of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness demonstrates another feature of our national wilderness preservation policy: the provision that existing livestock grazing within these areas by neighboring ranchers shall continue.

As Anderson assured, that use was protected in the words of the Wilderness Act itself, and has been similarly protected as Congress designates additional areas as wilderness. That was done, for example, for the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness.

New Mexico now has a number of wilderness areas on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, including our state’s newest, the Sabinoso Wilderness, which was established by Congress earlier this year. And a number of new wilderness areas on such lands will be protected under current legislation championed by Bingaman and Sen. Tom Udall as part of larger conservation proposals to the El Rio Grande del Norte region northeast of Taos and major areas in Doña Ana County outside Las Cruces.

These wilderness areas are an anchor of wildness, each important in the larger fabric of conservation that protects what is so special about our Land of Enchantment for future generations.

Council resolution backs New Mexico wilderness measure

El Paso Times

By David Burge


EL PASO – The City Council gave moral support Tuesday to a proposal that would protect thousands of acres of wilderness and other scenic areas in Southern New Mexico.

Council members voted 6-0 for a resolution backing a bill introduced last month by New Mexico’s Democratic U.S. senators, Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall.

The legislation would designate 259,000 acres in Doña Ana County as wilderness and another 100,000 acres as national conservation areas. Uses such as hiking, hunting and cattle grazing would still be allowed.

Protected areas would include the Organ, Potrillo and Robledo mountains.

“If you’ve ever hiked in the Organ Mountains, you know why New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment,” Mayor John Cook said.

Cook sponsored the resolution because he said it was important for the city to weigh in on an issue of regional importance.

Nathan Small, a Las Cruces City Council member and conservation coordinator for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, attended the meeting. Small said the bill would allow the region to continue to grow while protecting some its most spectacular natural resources.

The new designations could also bring additional funding for these scenic areas and possibly boost tourism, Small said.

The bill also would release about 16,000 acres along the New Mexico-Mexico border from a wilderness study area. This would give border law-enforcement additional flexibility, Small said.

El Paso city Rep. Carl L. Robinson said he grew up in

the concrete of Cleveland and stressed the importance of protecting scenic areas.

“This is the last frontier. We need to do all we can to preserve it,” he said.

Bingaman, New Mexico’s senior senator, praised the El Paso City Council for endorsing his bill.

“Las Cruces and El Paso enjoy a close relationship,” Bin gaman said in an e-mailed statement.

“We appreciate the El Paso City Council’s acknowledgement that the proposed wilderness area in Doña Ana County will benefit the entire region.”