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Exclusive Interview with Sen. Martin Heinrich: On wilderness in the Land of Enchantment

Exclusive Interview with Sen. Martin Heinrich: On wilderness in the Land of Enchantment

NM Wild Executive Director Mark Allison recently caught up with Sen. Martin Heinrich to get his thoughts on wilderness in New Mexico.

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August 1, 2014

MA: Thank you Senator Heinrich for your time this afternoon.

I wanted to start by recognizing that you have demonstrated a consistent commitment for land conservation throughout your life, both before and after elected office. What does wilderness mean to you and your family?

MH: It is one of the things that I have always loved about New Mexico. I have always been drawn to places like the Gila as well as some of our desert mountain ranges that are wilderness study areas. These places are landscapes where you can get away from the constant cell phones and computers and iPhones and everything else that tends to clutter the mind and really think more basically like a human being. So, I have always been very attracted to that and many of my formative life decisions have been made in these places.

MA: Did you have an agenda or vision related to land conservation when you ran for office?

MH: I think less than an agenda; I had an attitude about how to work with other people who care about a land ethic in order to find common ground and to be able to move forward in a challenging political environment. What I am excited about in New Mexico is that we have been able to build local consensus and very broad coalitions at a time when much of the country has struggled with divisiveness and very polarized situations around federal land conservation in particular. As a result, New Mexico has seen major accomplishments at a time when other states have really struggled to show the same sort of results.

MA: I was fortunate to recently spend eight days backpacking in the Gila Wilderness with our Gila organizer, Nathan Newcomer, and we timed our trip to come out on June 3 in recognition of the 90th anniversary of the Gila Wilderness, the country’s first protected wilderness. I recall that you took a similar trip to the Gila after 9/11. Can you talk a little bit about why you were drawn to that particular place at that time and what you took away from that experience?

MH: I have always felt, from the first time I went to the Gila Wilderness, that it is a captivating landscape. It is large and not like a lot of other wilderness areas in the way it looks and feels, and it has amazing wildlife. That trip right after 9/11 had been planned for some time with a friend of mine from college. It was at a time in my life when I was shifting gears from the work that I had done as an educator and an outfitter guide—including putting trips together, including educational trips into the Gila Wilderness—towards more public service. And it was on that trip—I think we did about 53 miles of backpacking all through McKenna Park and Turkey Feather Pass, the Jerky Mountains and the Gila River canyon—that I decided to run for elected office for the (Albuquerque) city council. That trip gave me the time and space to think about the future and how I wanted to give back to my community.

MA: You’ve spoken about your father who was a German immigrant who fled the Nazi regime. Is your dad an outdoorsman, and what lessons did you learn from him and his experience coming to the U.S.?

MH: My dad is an outdoorsman. He was quite young when his parents immigrated to the United States in the mid-‘30s and by the time he was a teenager, he was working outside as a cowboy. When I was growing up we had a small ranch, and he was sort of a natural conservationist in how he managed the land, how he related to wildlife, as well as producing cattle. So I grew up outside every chance I could, and that usually meant disappearing after school for hours at a time, bringing all kinds of wildlife home at night that my mother did not really appreciate—snakes and turtles and what have you. My father always really supported that and was always interested and encouraging in that. I do not think he ever set out to be an outdoorsman, he just was.

MA: Speaking of fathers, New Mexico is the birthplace of wilderness in important ways and can claim two of the wilderness movement’s fathers—Aldo Leopold and Sen. Clinton P. Anderson. I’ve also heard you speak of the less-well-known New Mexican, Edgar Lee Hewett, who drafted legislation that would become known as the Antiquities Act. There have been many other New Mexicans, both private citizens and elected officials, who have made significant contributions to the wilderness and conservation movement. Why do you think New Mexico has had this persistent strain of conservation throughout our history and had such a profound and outsized influence compared to our small population?

MH: I think there is a persistent misunderstanding that because our relationship with wilderness is such that we are not residents in wilderness, that we are not in it all the time, that (this) somehow means it is not part of our culture. The reality is in New Mexico that there has always been an enormous impact on culture from the natural landscape and the places where people may only be part of the year during hunting season or some places in the summer and some places in the winter. There has been this enormous influence on all of the cultures of New Mexico by the landscape and that has been exemplified by people like Aldo Leopold and Clinton Anderson, but it is also endemic in the land-based Hispanic culture in New Mexico. It is endemic in the relationships that the Pueblo tribes have in New Mexico and their reverence for specific mountains and the places that they hunt and fish. There is an enormous influence on all of us as people by the special landscapes of New Mexico, and I think everyone who has lived in New Mexico has been influenced by that landscape, and it consistently drives people to do things, to perpetuate that natural relationship between people and land and between culture and land.

MA: One of the things, of course, that makes New Mexico so special is our rich history and our diverse cultural heritage. We have found strength in that, but it is complicated. Are there lessons you’ve learned as you travel across the state about what we can do to broaden the conservation movement even further so that it better reflects New Mexico?

MH: You know, you put it well—it is complicated and it is hard and it is challenging to get people out of their place of comfort to sit down with others that come from different perspectives. The flipside of that is that it is so much more powerful when we have broad coalitions working together. The strength, I think, of the conservation movement in New Mexico is that in many ways it has been ahead of any place else in the Western United States in building those coalitions and having open and honest dialogue. When that occurs, it allows things to move forward that oftentimes simply could not without the depth and diversity of those coalitions. When you look back at the last 10 years of conservation in the state of New Mexico and what has been accomplished, it has really been quite incredible. It has been akin to what you might have seen in the early ‘70s when the environmental movement was at its peak. Not only have we had these two landscape-level national monuments that were driven locally and that were supported by very culturally diverse coalitions, but we have also had campaigns like the protection of the Valle Vidal, a place where the hunting and fishing community really got out and led the charge but had an enormously broad coalition behind them. Places like the Ojito (and Sabinoso wildernesses, new national wildlife refuges in the state, all of that was possible because people were working together. Many of those places were places where these efforts had been tried in the past, but people were not communicating this well and working together as well as they could have, and, when they did, it made all the difference.

MA: We’ve talked a little about fathers and I now want to turn to sons. I have two sons, as do you. What has been your approach to trying to instill values of public service and love of the outdoors and an ethic of stewardship in your boys? How can we better engage young people and cultivate the next generation of stewards?

MH: I think the most important thing beyond anything else is just giving kids an opportunity to spend time in the outdoors. Oftentimes in an era when screen time is more ubiquitous than time in the woods, that is the most important thing because kids will naturally gravitate to it. Some of my absolute best memories bar none are the camping trips that I have been able to take with my wife, Julie, and my two sons in New Mexico, and it is places like the Cruces Basin Wilderness that we go back to again and again. That is where my kids first went fly-fishing, and we have these memories of picking and cooking wild mushrooms and chasing grouse during fall hunting season and all these things that will stay with my kids for their entire lives. I do not think it matters so much what part of the state you are from but just to get your kids outside and be a good role model for them, make sure that you leave your campsite nicer than you found it and that you model an ethic of stewardship, and kids will embrace that. They understand how lucky it is to be outside, to be able to camp and enjoy time with their family in these great places, but the most important thing is that you carve out the time to make that happen because that does not happen for too many young people these days.

MA: When Sen. Jeff Bingaman and then Congressman Tom Udall introduced the Ojito Wilderness Act in 2003, New Mexico had not had a new wilderness area since 1987. When it passed, Ojito became the first new wilderness in New Mexico in 18 years. You were a primary organizer for that effort. You also played an instrumental role in the effort to protect Sabinoso first as an organizer with NM Wild and the Coalition for New Mexico Wilderness. Later as a new congressman, you were actually able to vote on that bill and then witness the signing ceremony at the White House. How special was it to see that campaign through from beginning to end and how did your perspective change from one of a citizen activist to that of an elected official?

MH: It was amazing, particularly with the Sabinoso effort, to be with it from start to finish. I had a chance to take a very long horseback trip into the Sabinoso Wilderness Study Area with then-Congressman and now senior Sen. Tom Udall and I gained a new respect for him, given his comfort in the saddle of a horse. I think we were probably riding for about eight hours that day. Afterwards I needed supplemental ibuprofen for about three days. I was saddle sore, but it was an incredible experience to be at the front end of that and then to be a member of Congress to see it come to fruition. [T1]

MA: It seems intuitively obvious to me that protecting our unique natural heritage is an inherently patriotic activity. What do you think is behind some of the recent anti-government protests about federal public land ownership and management? 

MH: Some of that, I think, is simply driven by the role of third-party groups and outside money in campaigns today. I mean, there has been a very effective effort to create litmus tests within primary politics, and so you see less bipartisanship on those efforts than you have in the past. But when you do see bipartisanship, it is even more powerful and I think it cuts through some of the challenges and some of the things that really turn people off about politics today. I think it is very unfortunate because, obviously, in New Mexico we have this great history of people doing such good work on behalf of our public lands, and it runs the gamut from Clinton Anderson who was a Democratic senator, a Democratic congressman, to people like Sen. Pete Domenici who worked on many of the special places in New Mexico.

MA: Given the fact that it literally takes an act of Congress to create new wilderness, what are the prospects of getting legislation through Congress in the near and medium term? Where does protection of public lands go from here? What new approaches do you see for the future?  

MH: I think that the House and Senate are fundamentally more polarized and more partisan than they were in the 1970s and I have seen that firsthand, but I will say that what worked then and what works today is building these local coalitions. Those have the power to change people’s minds, and even in this era of outside organizations trying to influence local politics, nothing is more influential to an elected official than hearing from their own constituents. So when you have these broad coalitions that are truly working together, that gets people’s attention. The challenge is that it takes probably longer than ever before to see these things through. The atmosphere in the Congress is such that it does not happen overnight but once you have the sort of support that we have seen in campaigns in New Mexico, it makes the difference. What I have always said is once that exists, I have faith in the system that eventually you will be successful, and we have seen that happen over and over again. People worked on the Organ Mountains for several decades. People worked on the Rio Grande del Norte going all the way back to the mid-‘80s and it obviously took a long time. Bill Richardson as a congressman introduced legislation for the area that became the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument that did not become law, but as the community worked through its challenges and became more and more united behind that effort, it became a certainty not with regard to when it would happen but that it would happen. I think the conservation movement across the West where we have a lot of public land can learn so much from how all of you in New Mexico have worked on these issues together and if those lessons are learned well by people in other states, I think the sky is the limit.

MA: Do you have any thoughts on what NM Wild can do to better our chances for future protections?

MH: I think the role that the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance plays very well is making people aware that they have this great birthright in these amazing public lands that belong to them. You know there are many places in the world—most places in the world—that do not have anything like protected wilderness, and the more people know what they have, the more they value it and the more they want to be good stewards of it. I think it is a matter of laying the groundwork so that when the opportunity is right you can formalize that and make some of these efforts more permanent. A great example, I think, moving into the future will be Columbine Hondo—the incredible business support, the local community support (from) local elected mayors, county commissioners, outfitter guides, grazers, Acequia parciantes, local conservation groups to state-level groups like the Wilderness Alliance working together to make that happen. I cannot tell you it will happen in this Congress, but because that coalition is so strong and deep and broad, I have every confidence that it will happen just like Rio Grande del Norte happened.

MA: Outstanding! What do you think the future of conservation should be like in the U.S. in terms of the most prominent issues and possible policies or laws to address them?

MH: I think there are a couple of things that we need to focus on. Clearly climate change is beginning to impact every corner of the country and so even though my entire life I have really focused more on land conservation, I think it is important for all of us to see the local impact that climate change will have and to begin to take some ownership in wanting to address that issue. It will have huge economic ramifications for states like New Mexico. It will have cultural ramifications. It puts pressures on every sector of our population from ranchers and farmers to the business community to the conservation community …. I think all of us can play some role in taking ownership and coming up with solutions that will be broadly supported to address issues like that and I think we need to continue to build on the great work that our leadership in this state has done over time. We have had these giants of forethought and you have mentioned many of them. More recently Sen. Jeff Bingaman laid much of the groundwork that Sen. Udall and I and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan and Congresswoman (Michelle) Lujan Grisham were able to utilize to do many of the successful things that we have done in the last year and a half.

MA: We’re proud to be co-hosting the national Wilderness 50 conference in Albuquerque in October to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. I know you’ll be speaking at the conference. What message do you plan to bring?

MH: I think it is very much one of, “be strengthened by our history and be willing to take on the new challenges as we move into new and uncertain times.”

I just want to thank all your members for the hard work that went into many of the efforts that we have seen in recent years. It is because of their grassroots support and their willingness to work with very diverse coalitions that we are able to make progress in a time when it is very hard to make progress.

MA: Thank you for that and thanks again for your time today and for your leadership on protecting the places New Mexicans care so much about.

MH: Thanks Mark. I look forward to seeing you soon.