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Common Ground: New Mexicans Support Protecting Public Lands
By Mark Allison, Executive Director

Every day, Americans are confronted with a warped perception of reality—exemplified by Washington, D.C., and exacerbated by our national media—that causes us to take for granted as common wisdom that we are a deeply divided and polarized country, at profound odds with our neighbors over virtually everything. National public lands and conservation issues certainly aren’t immune to this impression.

I wonder, though, if reality is a bit different. After all, our experience in New Mexico as demonstrated by recent campaigns from Rio Grande del Norte in the north to Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in the south, is one of overwhelming community agreement. This shouldn’t go unnoticed—not by our elected officials, nor by us. It is remarkable.

Supporters of Wilderness and our public lands don’t necessarily have the same motivations, nor must they. Regardless, though, their support is deeply rooted in the values, traditions and culture that make us proud New Mexicans and Americans. At our best, we honor wisdom and prudence and common sense. We recognize an obligation to posterity. We value family and cherish memories of time spent together. We reflexively want balance and fairness; we cringe at thoughtless waste, destruction and despoliation. We grieve for loss. We intuitively know that destroying our few remaining wild places is irrevocable and lessens us. We know deep down that it is immoral to destroy fully and forever that which we didn’t create.  

Public polling bears this out. One recent poll of post-9/11 veterans living in Western states found that a 75 percent majority favored the federal government protecting public lands by designating them as national parks, monuments or Wilderness. Surprising, maybe, but perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Take for example this nonsense over transferring our federal public lands to the state—this isn’t coming from a groundswell from everyday New Mexicans. It is cynically generated by out-of-state industry-funded front groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They are well-heeled and sophisticated and do an increasingly good job of wrapping their rhetoric around freedom and access while the implications of what they want to do represent the very opposite.

And don’t be taken in by those who try to paint the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance as out of step. We aren’t anti-business or anti-industry. We simply and unapologetically believe there are certain places in New Mexico that are so special, so increasingly rare, so critical to biodiversity, so integral to who we are as a people, that they shouldn’t be sacrificed for short-sighted, for-profit extractive industry interests. We believe that surely we are rich enough as a country, generous enough in spirit, conservative enough in foresight, and prudent enough in temperament that certain places should be allowed to remain self-willed. With 98 percent of New Mexico’s land area not enjoying the protection of designated Wilderness, surely we can find literal and figurative common ground in identifying those special places that merit protection.  

There can be legitimate, respectful disagreements and discussions about Wilderness—particularly in New Mexico, which has a rich and complicated history—about what appropriate percentage of our land should enjoy this highest level of protection (5 percent? 15 percent?) and certainly about what boundaries are important and when and how to make sure traditional uses are respected. But let’s not allow ourselves to be used by outside forces with self-interested motivations or be convinced that we are as divided as they want us to think we are.

New Mexico’s recent experience has been exactly the opposite, and our success has been in coming together. When land grant heirs and tribes and sportsmen and businesses and faith-based groups and conservationists come together, we represent the very best of the Land of Enchantment: people speaking with a collective voice that says this place is one we love and will defend. Together we are “an unstoppable juggernaut.”

If you use our national public lands—hiking in the Sandias, camping or fishing in the Pecos,  hunting in the Cibola, collecting fuel wood or piñon nuts in the Carson; if you care whether wildlife has habitat; if you just don’t think it is a good idea for us to squander every last remaining acre; or particularly if you cannot live without the idea of wildness, please consider becoming a member of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and helping us in our effort to defend the last remaining wild places of New Mexico.  There is lots of work to be done and fun to be had.  I hope you join us.