September 3 marks the 56th anniversary of the Wilderness Act being signed into law in 1964. The law created a legal definition for Wilderness and established the National Wilderness Preservation System, providing congress and the federal government with a blueprint for designating new Wilderness Areas.
A History of Wilderness in New Mexico
In many ways, New Mexico is the home of Wilderness. Four decades before the Wilderness Act was signed into law, the nearly 560,000-acre Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico became the world’s first designated Wilderness area in 1924 thanks to the advocacy of Aldo Leopold. The Gila was then the first Wilderness area added to the National Wilderness Preservation System that congress created in 1964.
The New Mexico Wilderness Act of 1980 established approximately 400,000 acres of new Wilderness in the state. The legislation created new Wilderness such as the Aldo Leopold and Apache Kid Wilderness Areas and expanded the boundaries of other beloved Wilderness areas, including the Gila and the Pecos.
Recent Wilderness Victories
New Mexico Wild has worked for decades to establish new Wilderness and expand existing areas throughout the state. Over the years, we have advocated for the creation of the Columbine Hondo, Ojito, and Sabinoso Wilderness Areas. We also recently partnered with the state’s entire congressional delegation to secure a huge victory when the John D. Dingell Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act was signed into law in March 2019.
The legislation established thirteen new Wilderness areas in the state – including ten within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and two within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument – and added more than 2,000 acres to the existing Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area. The 272,586 acres of new Wilderness was the largest addition to New Mexico’s total since 1980.
What Comes Next
New Mexico Wild staff is always assessing new opportunities to establish new Wilderness through on-the-ground inventories and by advising federal public land agencies about potential Wilderness areas through various public planning processes.
We currently have our eyes set on legislation introduced by Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall on June 8, 2020 to establish the Cerro de la Olla Wilderness. The legislation would create a 13,000-acre Wilderness area within the boundaries of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. We are hopeful that the legislation will be granted a hearing in the Senate before 2020 concludes.
• New Mexico is home to 39 Wilderness areas.
• There are approximately 1,972,507 acres of protected Wilderness in New Mexico. Unfortunately, this only accounts for 2.5% of the state’s landmass, far below the average of other western states. There is still work to do.
• There are currently 803 designated Wilderness areas, totaling 111,987,310 acres, or about 5% percent of the area of the United States.
• Among other requirements, Wilderness areas must be roadless and consist of at least 5,000 acres of land. These requirements make Wilderness areas ideal destinations to find solitude and adventure.
• Wilderness areas help battle the impacts of climate change by keeping natural ecosystems intact and trapping carbon emissions in the wood and leaves on trees.