Thursday, July 3, 2008

Pearce's conservation bill: What's not to like?

By Jim Scarantino

The Doña Ana County Wilderness Coalition deserves congratulations for Rep. Steve Pearce’s proposed legislation to protect more than 300,000 acres of federal land in Doña Ana County. By kick-starting the debate on how to preserve the landscape surrounding a booming Las Cruces, the wilderness coalition succeeded in prompting a conservative Republican congressman to introduce the first major land conservation legislation for southern New Mexico in nearly 30 years. Moreover, his legislation originated among constituencies acting out of stereotype in joining the call to permanently protect the rugged beauty of the area.

I am the former chairman of the Coalition for New Mexico Wilderness. I was also a board member and executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. I helped lead the effort to win protection for the Ojito Wilderness in Sandoval County. That legislation passed in 2005. It was the first citizen-initiated wilderness legislation for New Mexico in almost two decades.

In a blog I kept a couple years ago, I expressed concern about the Doña Ana wilderness campaign led by the Wilderness Alliance. There’s no point in rehashing what I think went wrong from the campaign’s very first steps. What’s done is done, and wilderness activists simply have to deal with the political situation they face today.

Tom Cooper, co-chairman of People For Preserving Our Western Heritage, saw my blog entries and contacted me. Though Tom is regularly described in news reports as a rancher, he is more accurately considered a businessman. He has run a successful accounting business in Doña Ana County for decades. He owns two car dealerships. And he owns ranches, including one in Doña Ana County.

I had met Tom when working for the Wilderness Alliance in 2003 on issues related to Otero Mesa. Tom has a ranch on the western end of those grasslands. Our conversations back then could not be described as friendly. Respectful, yes. Friendly, no.

But because we had always treated each other honestly, Tom felt he could reach out to me. He told me of the frustrations and fear the ranching community was feeling, and how much the agricultural community in general distrusted the Wilderness Alliance because of the people who controlled its board of directors. That operative fact is a big problem in this controversy. I will return to that issue later.

Tom insisted his group wanted rural Doña Ana County kept the way it is, but could not live under the Wilderness Act because of the adverse impact on their operations, law enforcement, water resources and flood control.

The birth of the legislation

I gave him two pieces of free advice: One, don’t give up. You and the members of your group are well respected. You have deep roots in your community. Don’t let yourselves feel helpless. And, two, if you really mean what you say about wanting to protect Doña Ana County for future generations, don’t just be obstructionist. Be constructive. Propose and advocate for your own alternative solution.

That’s just what they did. Pearce’s proposed legislation, H.R. 6300, is the brainchild of Tom’s group.

To say the least, Tom’s group exceeded all expectations. The wilderness coalition, for its part, has enjoyed the services of several full-time employees and a large organizing and advertising budget. People For Preserving Our Western Heritage has relied solely on volunteers who have other full-time jobs. No outside foundations have been sending them five-figure donations to launch a media and lobbying campaign.

The group has assembled a coalition more than three times as large as what the wilderness professionals accomplished. Tom’s group has peeled away governments and organizations that initially supported wilderness. The chambers of commerce of Las Cruces and Hatch are behind them. Past presidents of New Mexico State University support their proposal, along with respected range-management professionals, the National Association of Retired Border Patrol Agents, the sheriff and posse of Doña Ana County, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers of America.

There is more support for the proposal drafted by this committed group of volunteers than New Mexico has seen for any other conservation initiative in a generation, with the possible exception of the professionally run campaign to protect Valle Vidal from energy development.

The proposal from People For Preserving Our Western Heritage has drawn so much support so easily because it has a vision that can work. Once you tune out the rhetoric and partisan bickering and actually read Pearce’s bill, as far as preserving Doña Ana County’s open spaces, there’s really not much to dislike. Nor are his land-disposal provisions as bad as opponents argue. I will address the specific merits of his legislation in my next column.

Scarantino has been recognized as one of the country’s best political columnists by the American Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. His work has been published in more than 50 newspapers. You can contact him at

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