By Tisha Broska, New Mexico Wild Deputy Director
Albuquerque Journal | March 31, 2019
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. Think: the introduction of the fax machine, Pac-Man, the Empire Strikes Back, and ABBA. This represents the most new acreage of wilderness designated in New Mexico since 1980.
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 was a bipartisan and bicameral effort. This is where people found literal and figurative common ground, perhaps providing us with a model for a path forward for other important issues. It is truly remarkable.
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 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. Those in the north contain incredible wildlands and waters that sustain the surrounding communities and are home to elk, deer, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, sandhill cranes and other wildlife. One of the centerpieces is Ute Mountain – a 10,000-foot-high volcanic cone that rises above the surrounding plain and overlooks the Taos Gorge.
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 conservationist worked for more than a decade to get here. It was noticed – those in D.C. 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 co-sponsored 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 Rep. Ben Ray Luján sponsored the Taos County companion legislation in the House in the last Congress with former representative and current Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham co-sponsoring. New Reps. Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small support the package bill.
Altogether, this legislation created 10 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 (LWCF), 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 Albuquerque Journal.