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Doña Ana County Wilderness Bill Introduced!

For Immediate Release

Sportsmen, business owners, conservationists, local elected officials and other community members hailed the introduction today of The Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks Wilderness Act, by Senator Jeff Bingaman and Senator Tom Udall. The measure will protect nearly 400,000 acres of public land in Dona Ana County, by designating 271,050 acres as wilderness and creating a 109,600-acre National Conservation Area around the Organ and Doña Ana Mountains and parts of Broad Canyon.

“We applaud Senators Bingaman and Udall for their dedication to ensuring that more of New Mexico’s beloved wild places will be around for our children’s children to use and enjoy,” said Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima. “Their bill follows years of discussion and collaboration with community members with many different interests and concerns.”

Bonnie Burn, President of the League of Women Voters, added, “We all share the goal of protecting Doña Ana County’s unique and precious open areas which add so much to our quality of life.”

“This important conservation bill comes as the nation celebrates the 45th anniversary of the Wilderness Act,” said Stephen Capra, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “That broadly backed measure allowed citizens to add other worthy wild places to our preservation system. It is fitting that it will help us today protect such beloved area icons as the Organ Mountains and Broad Canyon.”

“The Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks Wilderness Act will ensure that our grandchildren can hunt in and enjoy these areas as we have done,” said Sandy Schemnitz, President of the Southwest Consolidated Sportsmen. “A New Mexico sportsman– Aldo Leopold – first conceived the idea of wilderness to preserve the hunting he’d come to love in the Gila. Today, Doña Ana County sportsmen are delighted that this legislation will help us pass down our traditions.”

“It’s not surprising that over a hundred local businesses support greater protection for the wilderness in ‘our backyards,’” said John Munoz, of the Hispano Chamber of Commerce.“We’re beginning to understand how wilderness attracts visitors who come here to camp, hike, hunt, explore, open businesses and ultimately keep our cash registers ringing and our livelihoods thriving.”

A 2006 poll of Doña Ana County residents by Public Opinion Strategies found that a majority of residents favor protecting wilderness in the area. The municipalities of Las Cruces, Sunland Park, Mesilla and the Doña Ana County Commission have adopted resolutions supporting protection of these areas to boost the local economies.

In a tough compromise, the bill crafted by the Senators contains 30,000 less acres of wilderness than proposed by conservationists. However, they applaud Senators Bingaman and Udall for reaching out to all parties to address any and all issues. The measure will protect rare grasslands in the Potrillo and Uvas Mountains, petroglyph sites and riparian areas in Broad Canyon, crucial watersheds, and the iconic spires of Las Cruces’ signature attraction: the Organ Mountains.

“Our wild places truly make New Mexico the ‘Land of Enchantment.’ This important new bill will help ensure more of it will stay just as it is,” said Don Patterson, of the Back Country Horseman. “We urge Congress to pass this common sense conservation bill soon, and send it to the president.”

Otero Mesa Victory!

For Immediate Release

On April 27, 2009 the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision invalidating the Bureau of Land Management’s oil and gas drilling plan for New Mexico’s Otero Mesa. The court ruled that the BLM’s original Resource Management Plan Amendment, which opened the vast majority of Otero Mesa to oil and gas leasing and limited protection for the desert grasslands, was fatally flawed due to its failure to consider protection for Otero Mesa and the Salt Basin Aquifer.

The court ruled that the BLM had to consider an alternative that closed Otero Mesa to oil and gas leasing, admonishing the agency that “[d]evelopment is a possible use, which BLM must weigh against other possible uses—including conservation to protect environmental values, which are best assessed through the NEPA process.”

“Today’s court ruling underscores what has been at the heart of the Otero Mesa debate for the past eight years,” said Nathan Newcomer, Associate Director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “The BLM made oil and gas development in Otero Mesa the number one priority over the values of wilderness, wildlife and water, and it’s time now for the agency to own up to its responsibilities and do what is right for this special place.” The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has inventoried Otero Mesa and found more than 500,000 acres suitable for wilderness designation.

The court went on to write that, “applying the rule of reason, we [the court] agree with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance that analysis of an alternative closing the Mesa to development is compelled.”

The court also rejected the BLM’s position that there were no significant risks to the Salt Basin Aquifer, which contains millions of acre-feet of potable water, from oil and gas, noting that the agency had not reviewed “relevant data” and characterized the information included in the agency’s own documentation as “point[ing] uniformly in the opposite direction from the agency’s determination, we cannot defer to that determination.”

Further, the court required the BLM to thoroughly examine the potential destruction of fragile desert grasslands from its proposed management approach, which was not included in the original draft provided to the public. In dismissing the agency’s claim that wildlife habitat would not be affected by a complete change in approach, the court analogized the BLM’s approach as claiming “that analyzing the likely impacts of building a dirt road along the edge of an ecosystem excuses an agency from analyzing the impacts of building a four-lane highway straight down the middle, simply because the type of impact—habitat disturbance—is the same under either scenario.”

“The BLM cannot simply decide to risk the utter destruction of irreplaceable resources like Otero Mesa and ignore public and scientific concerns,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel with The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “The 10th Circuit has sent a clear message to the BLM that the agency must protect all of our natural resources and ensure that any decisions are based on actual facts and science.”

The ruling came in connection with a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation organizations led by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and a lawsuit filed by the State of New Mexico.

New Mexico Conservation Bill Takes Key Step Towards Passage

For Immediate Release

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New Mexico Conservation Bill Takes Key Step Towards Passage
El Rio Grande del Norte NCA/Wilderness Bill Before Senate Subcommittee

A hearing by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests today was cheered by New Mexico conservationists and sportsmen as a key step toward the passage of the El Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act (S. 874).

“Today’s action by members of the Senate Subcommittee is an important step in the passage of this conservation bill,” says John Olivas, Northern Director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, based in Mora.  “This legislation will help ensure that our traditional ways of life in northern New Mexico will be available to our children and theirs – whether it’s making a living as an outfitter, as I am; a hunter; a rancher; or a small business owner who depends on the dollars visitors who treasure our open spaces leave in our local cash registers.”

The bill will designate nearly 236,000 acres as a National Conservation Area (NCA), including two wilderness areas – the 13,420-acre Cerro del Yuta Wilderness (the iconic Ute Mountain) and the 8,000-acre Rio San Antonio Wilderness.   The area contains some of the most spectacular lands and habitat in the state, and is an important migratory flyway for a number of bird species.  Areas within the Rio Grande gorge – which at some places is a half mile wide across and drops to the Rio Grande River 800 feet below – are treasured for hiking, “peak bagging,” horseback riding and wildlife watching.

“Senator Bingaman’s legislation will ensure that we can protect valuable hunting and fishing opportunities for New Mexican sportsmen,” says Oscar Simpson of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, “an important resource in this state.”

Last month, the legislation won the endorsement of three significant local groups – the Taos Chamber of Commerce, the Mora Valley Chamber of Commerce, and the Taos County Commission.

“Senator Bingaman’s proposal will protect and enhance the recreational, ecological, scenic and cultural resources of northern New Mexico’s shared public lands,” says Olivas, “while also recognizing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, protecting the rights of our traditional communities for future generations.”

Congress Passes Bill That Protects Sabinoso

For Immediate Release

Measure Protects 2nd Wilderness Area in New Mexico in Last 20 Years

Washington, D.C.—The United States House of Representatives today passed by a vote of 285 to 140,  legislation to protect the Sabinoso Wilderness Area, as part of a large public lands bill. At 16,000 acres, Sabinoso is one of the finest intact Great-Plains ecosystems left in New Mexico and is home to a variety of wildlife, including American kestrel, savannah sparrow, red-tailed hawk, bobcats, mountain lions, mule deer, gray foxes, and an assortment of frogs and butterflies in the riparian areas.  It lies just 40 miles east of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

“Today is a great day for all New Mexicans,” said Nathan Newcomer, Associate Director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “Many local people in the area have been working for years with our congressional delegation to permanently protect the Sabinoso Wilderness Area, and today we can celebrate this important victory.  We commend Senator Tom Udall for introducing this conservation measure as a member of the House, and for his long commitment and leadership in protecting our irreplaceable natural treasures.” 

The bill now goes to President Obama’s desk for his signature. Newcomer praised the House and Senate leadership for moving this important bill early in the session. “It sends a strong signal to the conservation community that Congress took up this lands package as one of its first pieces of business.”

In addition to designating wilderness in Sabinoso, the lands bill will protect wild land in eight other states, including Colorado, Utah, California and Virginia – more than 2 million acres in all.

A series of high, narrow mesas surrounded by steep, rock-walled canyons in the Sabinoso area provides a striking contrast to the nearby rolling prairie. The Canadian River runs through the northeast corner of the Sabinoso Wilderness Study Area, which feeds into many other streams. Ponderosa pine, Cottonwood, and willows can be found along the many stream sides.

Several resolutions in support of protecting Sabinoso have come from the San Miguel County Commission, the City of Las Vegas, the regional economic development group, and local ranchers.

According to the New Mexico Department of Tourism, the outdoor tourism industry in 2005 generated over $5 billion dollars to the state economy. Additionally, a 2004 study conducted by the nonprofit Sonoran Institute found that communities adjacent to protected public lands, including wilderness, are those with the fastest economic growth rates.

“Part of what makes New Mexico the true land of enchantment is our wealth of spectacular and varied landscapes that provide special places for solitude, hunting and hiking, and so many other recreational opportunities.  Our wild places contribute so much to our quality of life, and in these times of uncertainty, it is great to know that once the president signs this omnibus bill into law, Sabinoso will stay forever as it is – for our children and grandchildren,” added Newcomer.

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