Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wilderness debate clarification

by Jerry Schickedanz

I have been following the "wilderness debate" of HR 6300, Doña Ana County Planned Growth, Open Space and Range Land Preservation Act of 2008 with interest and dismay as "concerned citizens and special interest groups" continue to use alarmist tactics to divert citizens from the basic intent of the proposed legislation. These groups proclaim a wholesale sell-off of BLM land and they ignore the basic intent of the proposed legislation of land protection and access in Doña Ana County. I will only address these two issues of the many distorted ones surrounding the concern for protected open space and development around Las Cruces.

The claim of an overnight fire sale of 60,000 acres of BLM land doesn't hold much water. There were some 65,000 acres identified for disposal in 1993 by BLM in their Mimbres Resource Management Plan. Since that time, less than 5,000 acres have been sold or exchanged. One of BLM's founding objectives was disposal of lands under their jurisdiction. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that BLM is identifying land for disposal and has done so for many years. Current maps of the land identified for disposal in 1993 are available in the BLM office.

Previously, lands that have been sold, traded or exchanged in Doña Ana County have been done so without a lot of public input. When an exchange, sale or trade with another agency or private entity is in negotiation, it is almost completed before the public gets a chance for input and is on a completion course. HR 6300 provides for a local advisory board made up of local representatives to advise the secretary of Interior annually on prioritizing land for disposal under the land use planning process and make recommendations to the BLM state director with respect to the disposal. It also provides for public input on the priorities for disposal of public land. I would think this would be preferable to the current negotiations that are not widely announced until they are a done deal.

There is also an outcry about the release of lands by HR 6300 that are currently under management by the BLM's Wilderness Study Area designation (WSA). Yes, HR 6300 would release these lands from WSA status, but the majority of these lands would come under protection of the proposed Rangeland Preservation Areas (RPA) or Special Preservation Areas (SPA). These designations would provide for federal withdrawal from 1) "all forms of entry, appropriation or disposal under the public land laws," 2) "location, entry and patent under the mining laws" and 3) "operation of the mineral leasing, mineral materials and geothermal leasing laws". The proposed bill would also allow the secretary to manage RPAs and SPAs to conserve, protect and improve the resources including grazing and wildlife habitat and to maintain and preserve the open space within these lands. Currently, these lands have little management input to improve them for wildlife, grazing or recreation. The proposed withdrawals are similar to what was passed by Congress in 2006 that provide adequate protection for the Valle Vidal area in northern New Mexico from housing development, mineral, and oil and gas development while still allowing access for those beautiful and valuable natural resources.

I submit that if concerned citizens with open minds would read closely what is in HR 6300, they would find that the bill will provide for an orderly and agreed upon disposal of federal land and adequate protection for lands that are important for open space in Doña Ana County. The bill will allow access for those who want to experience, use and recreate in these open spaces.

Jerry G. Schickedanz is dean emeritus for the College of Agriculture and Home Economics, New Mexico State University

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