By Mark Allison, Executive Director, New Mexico Wild
March 31, 2019 | Las Cruces Sun-News
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 south boast sky island mountains, native Chihuahuan Desert grasslands, caves, unique lava flows, limestone cliffs and winding canyons. The iconic Organ Mountains are now permanently protected, but also less well-known areas that are perhaps even more ecologically important.
This is the story of New Mexicans from every walk of life working shoulder-to-shoulder for years, building a groundswell of support based on their love of these places that, simply, respectfully, demanded action. 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 DC 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 federal congressional delegation. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich cosponsored 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 Luján sponsored the Taos County companion legislation in the House in the last congress (with former representative and current governor Michelle Lujan Grisham cosponsoring) and new Reps. Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small supported the package bill.
Altogether, this legislation created ten 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 Las Cruces Sun-News.