New Mexico faces possibility of new wilderness designation
March 31, 2008
It is the first day of spring 2008 and New Mexico rancher Tom Mobley has yet to push a blade of sediment from the dry earthen stock pond on his Dona Ana County ranch.
“I started the request to clean this tank in October 2007 and I still don’t have the approval to do a thing,” he said, as he thumbed through a 16-page document he had received from the Las Cruces, NM, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office detailing the procedure he would have to follow upon receiving final approval for the work.
The tank that Mobley is worried about happens to be located in one of a number of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) scattered across part of the 2,400,000 acres of Dona Ana County. Because the location is in the WSA, the allowance to clean it does not follow normal BLM procedures for maintenance of such structures. Mobley must wait for the process, which includes interested party comments, to conclude.
“This is one reason why ranching under wilderness designation in this country won’t work!” he concluded as he throws his hands up and heads out the door.
Miles south of Mobley’s ranch in the Potrillo Mountains, rancher Dudley Williams is out early checking windmills before the wind comes up.
“Can you imagine our dilemma trying to maintain these mills without having unrestricted access to them?” Dudley shakes his head. The Williams Ranch spreads over some 345 sections of country that runs nearly to the Mexican border on its southern extension. The ranch has over 95 miles of pipelines, 200 miles of fence, and 175 miles of roads. It also has a 150,000-acre WSA footprint overlaying it.
“It’d pretty much put me out of business,” Dudley had related several months earlier in a video produced by the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau that related the story that has the local community so up in arms and divided.
William’s comments refer to the proposed creation of over 300,000 acres of wilderness in this southern New Mexico county. Part of the proposal spans lands that were included in a record of decision signed by then Secretary of Interior Manuel Lujan in 1991 that recommended 181,110 acres within the county be studied for wilderness designation. A lot has changed since 1991.
Dona Ana County lies just north of El Paso, TX, in the southern end of New Mexico. It shares borders with Texas and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. It is characterized by Chihuahuan grasslands with rainfall averaging just less than nine inches annually. Las Cruces, NM, the county seat and second largest city in New Mexico, is the center of commerce and government. It has become a regional medical center. It is the site of New Mexico State University (NMSU). The largest collective employer is the federal government through the many and varied activities of the Department of Defense, NASA and many contractors and support businesses. It has also become much less affected by agriculture and the heritage of nearly 400 years of written history. Although there remain 65 BLM ranching permits and over 90,000 acres of farm land within the county, it is a town that has fewer and fewer ties to the land and its stewards. Like so many towns across the West, it has found itself in a trend of parallel universes of those who have pragmatic issues of continuing their existence in a natural competitive setting and those who live in a world of academia, of the environment, and of progressive politics. In short, it could be viewed as being ripe for a wilderness assault, and, in fact, it has become ground zero in the first strike of such an attempt on New Mexico’s southern border.
A group of Dona Ana County ranchers and loyal allies mobilized and formed a group they call People for Preserving Our Western Heritage (PFPOWH). Their effort is aimed at countering the efforts of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance (NMWA), which had positioned three paid staffers within the community, along with an extended organization that is tied to major environmental entities, for the purposes of securing their ideas of wilderness within the county. Initially, PFPOWH viewed its efforts as simple self preservation. Dona Ana County is within a two-hour drive from the Gila Wilderness, America’s first designated wilderness, and the wilderness model ranchers and others have grown to fear from first hand knowledge and experience.
In 1960, there were 24 active grazing allotments in the Gila Wilderness proper or directly adjacent to that wilderness core. By the late 1990s, the 12 core allotments had been fully destocked and the adjacent allotments had recorded cattle numbers reduced by a whopping 87 percent. There has not been a cow legally in the wilderness itself since the 1970s. An NMSU study had demonstrated that the reductions could not be tied to any drought or market indicator. Wilderness and the restrictive management thereof was the factor in the reduction of those cattle numbers. PFPOWH has reason to fear wilderness, as do many other groups and individuals who care about access and beneficial use of these areas and their resources.
By the time PFPOWH began to counter the onslaught, NMWA had made compelling and passionate pleas to all of the local governing bodies of the county and had met with Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, and Pete Domenici, R-NM. They gained support and resolutions supporting wilderness from local governing bodies including the Village of Hatch Board of Trustees, the Las Cruces City Council, the Town of Mesilla Board of Trustees, the Sunland Park City Council, and the Dona Ana County Board of County Commissioners. Thinking that their efforts were truly an effort to minimize their losses, PFPOWH drafted a plan to deal with the most important aspect of the proposal, the Organ Mountains, with the hope that the remaining areas would be allowed to continue under multiple use management. They presented the plan to Congressman Steve Pearce, R-NM, and the first crack in the wilderness onslaught was at hand. Pearce rejected the plan and told them that he expected his constituents to fight for what they believed in, not what they thought they would have to accept! From that point, the attack broadened. The approach became more objective with the realization that the creation of wilderness in Dona Ana County could not stand on a passionate plea from either side for simply saving the land. It was an issue that had much broader ramifications that affect the well being of all the people in the community.
Several key letters came into the hands of the congressional delegations including a letter from Richard Hays, chief of Air Operations, United States Border Patrol (retired). Hays called attention to the difficulty of Border Patrol activities in designated wilderness areas already established on the Arizona border with Mexico. He also warned against the actions of the environmental groups following wilderness designation by suing the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Border Patrol for overflight in those areas. Another letter came from William L. Rice, deputy chief, United States Forest Service (USFS) (retired). Rice’s letter described what a nightmare wilderness administration had become for USFS, how it had altered the USFS budget in litigation and legal costs, and how it has driven a wedge between USFS and stakeholders. Two letters came from respected, retired NMSU administrators, Dr. Gerald Thomas and Dr. Bobby Rankin, who warned against the creation of wilderness in arid Dona Ana County lands from the standpoint of stewardship limitations. These letters collectively had impact that made it very clear to Domenici and Pearce that the rush to create wilderness needed additional input.
The National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers stepped into the fight in September 2007 and took the debate to a national level. In a guest column in the Las Cruces Sun News, the chairman of that organization, Ken Lundgren, made it known that the creation of wilderness along the Mexican border is not just a local issue. It is a national security issue.
“Our southern border is today more vulnerable to terrorist activities than at any other time in our national history. This is not the time to consider addiadditional designations as wilderness,” he wrote in a cover letter introducing his column. He also broke the silence on who was really pushing the effort from the environmental side of the issue in both Arizona and New Mexico.
“This effort to create a wilderness designation for a large portion of our southern border did not originate from citizens of New Mexico and Arizona. It originated from the NMWA and Sky Island Alliance,” he wrote in the column.
These points had impact within the community and leaders started reconsidering their actions. The village of Hatch, NM, and its mayoral and trustee leadership reconsidered its previous action and rescinded the resolution supporting wilderness creation. They replaced it with a strongly worded resolution calling for congressional leadership to support the concept of protecting lands, but within a different framework. That body very much recognized the homeland security pitfalls that border wilderness designation would create within their county.
Elephant Butte Irrigation District stepped up and created a similar resolution to consider their need and that of the community to access watershed areas that would be within the wilderness boundaries. Their point was that they intended to extend water and flood control structures and monitoring measures to extend their ability to manage their scarce water resources.
The board of the 800-member Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce debated the issues and came forth with the decision to not support the efforts of the wilderness movement, but the pragmatic needs of the community. They endorsed the efforts of PFPOWH.
But what about the greater, unifying issues of this debate? From the perspective of PFPOWH, the preservation of open space is a common theme both sides should agree upon. Wilderness itself is something both sides of the debate might also agree upon if the criteria were met for its designation and adherence to the original intent of the law. But, something else has occurred, too. The need for special protective measures for certain lands may not be best served by that designation. The federal wilderness designation has become much like the only tool a craftsman has in his pouch. He keeps carrying it around trying to find something that it fits. In Dona Ana County, it simply doesn’t fit by the standards set forth by the Wilderness Act of 1964. Dona Ana County and the West need a new tool that is more adaptive, considers heritage and local conditions, and elevates rather than diminishes the role of human stewardship and conservation.
In draft legislation presented to the New Mexico congressional delegations in December 2007, PFPOWH introduced the concept of Rangeland Preservation Area(s) (RPA). This designation would elevate similar protective measures as wilderness, but also allow local conditions to be honored and considered. For example, if open space is the only issue of the debate, the land can simply be withdrawn from disposal. As such, it can never be sold or traded. If local conditions make it necessary to protect against mining or mineral leasing activities, the lands can be withdrawn from the mining and mineral leasing laws. If, however, view shed is the primary issue and mining or mineral leasing remain vital to the economy of the area, RPA legislation can be written to accommodate those circumstances.
The RPA also recognizes that federal lands do have impact on the local economy. In Dona Ana County, the limited private lands against a backdrop of federal lands has contributed to spiraling land values. This has created conditions of high attrition of farming operations due to the sale of farm lands for development. A method to help mitigate that trend was factored into the discussion and included in the greater concept for issues specific to Dona Ana County.
For too long, there has been a need to realistically assess and pursue opportunities for enhancement of wildlife and rangeland health. The Dona Ana County RPA proposal was constructed so that this was included in the draft legislation. The opportunity to make substantive improvements in water, vegetation management, brush control, and other conditions that affect rangeland and wildlife health and which would not be possible in wilderness, are critical concerns.
Those who would argue that RPAs would not provide adequate protection need only to consider the measures taken to protect the Valle Vidal in northern New Mexico. It was hailed as a major achievement by environmental groups when the land gifted to the U.S. was subsequently withdrawn from disposal. U.S. Reps. Tom Udall, D-NM, Heather Wilson, R-NM, and Pearce, and Sens. Bingaman and Domenici supported the legislation and share that success. New Mexico’s delegation should recognize and embrace the protection that RPAs can similarly bring to Dona Ana County lands and lands across the West. The West needs a measure that recognizes the past as well as the future in land protective measures without isolating or putting any stakeholder at risk.
Sara Cox Hopkins ranches on what has become the focal point of the Dona Ana debate, the Organ Mountains. Perhaps it would be most simple to remove her, designate the Organs wilderness, and everybody go happily away. She represents, however, the heart of why this whole debate needs to be rerouted and modified. Hopkin’s grandparents came to New Mexico before 1900 and ranched in the Tularosa Basin. Like the other ranchers in that area, they were removed for the war effort during the 1940s with the establishment of what is now White Sands Missile Range. They had no alternative, and the voices of her family and others were simply lost in time and space. They were victims of a government that forgot that this country, which individuals finance and defend, is predicated on the rights of those same individuals. The Cox family has earned a right to be present on those mountains. They have perfected methods and an approach to stewardship of the lands that needs to be emulated and passed along. Their understanding of cattle and wildlife patterns and needs is as important as any archived university study.
The chairperson of PFPOWH, Tom Cooper, is on record saying that this group has no intention of pursuing any action that would threaten the existence or take anything from anybody. That fundamental attitude and logic has prompted nearly 700 businesses and organizations to step forward to join a coalition in support of this effort in Dona Ana County. What is even more important, though, is that this effort will not end in Dona Ana County. It is simply a stage that is being set that will determine the future management of similar lands across the West.
Open space, realistic needs for economic and population growth, prevention of unlawful use of off-highway vehicles, access to law enforcement and all segments of the public, perpetuation of historical ranching operations, allowances for water projects and flood control, rangeland health improvements, and a true fidelity to historical wilderness concepts and law have been cornerstones of the draft PFPOWH legislation, the Dona Ana County Planned Growth, Open Space and Rangeland Preservation Act.
In the case of Dona Ana County, though, the argument for border security probably trumps all other issues. It is a huge factor and the presence of large areas of land with only conditional access for Border Patrol should give pause to any sensible leader advocating border wilderness designation. Americans will obey the laws, but few expect drug runners and illegal traffickers to adhere to the same philosophical underpinnings. As Zack Taylor, National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, asked recently on a national radio program, “Is any senator or congressman really willing to put his name on the line guaranteeing that wilderness on the border does not run the risk of increasing crime and violence and national security risks to the United States of America and the American people?” The Dona Ana County debate will eventually answer that question. For more information about the Dona Ana County Planned Growth, Open Space and Rangeland Preservation Act or PFPOWH, please visit the group’s Web site at www.peopleforwesternheritage.com. — Steve Wilmeth, People for Preserving Our Western Heritage