Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Election alters wilderness fight outlook

LAS CRUCES — Some people are wondering how a change in New Mexico's congressional delegation will impact a proposal for designating thousands of acres in Doña Ana County as wilderness.

The proposal for an official federal wilderness designation, initially put forward in late 2005, stalled after it lost support from outgoing U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and was opposed by outgoing U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who backed a different land-use plan favored by ranchers.

But Domenici is retiring, and Pearce unsuccessfully sought election this year to Domenici's Senate seat. Replacing them are Sen.-elect Tom Udall, now a congressman from northern New Mexico, and Rep.-elect Harry Teague, both Democrats.

Teague, in a phone interview two weeks ago, said he's already spoken to some constituents about the wilderness proposal, but is still gathering information. He said he doesn't have a stance yet.

"I don't really have everything I need to have about that," Teague said.

Marissa Padilla, a spokeswoman for Udall, said the senator-elect will invite and listen to all of the various parties to build consensus on the wilderness. Udall looks forward to working with Bingaman, Teague and the members of the new delegation to take steps toward the introduction of legislation, she said.

Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said that, in January, the senator will begin talks with Doña Ana County residents and the new delegation "with the intention of developing wilderness legislation."

A group backed by ranchers and off-road vehicle users, called People for Preserving Our Western Heritage, has butted heads with the Doña Ana County Wilderness Coalition over its proposal for wilderness. The pro-wilderness group includes conservationists, sportsmen and some developers.

Frank DuBois, a former agriculture secretary for New Mexico who's involved with the ranching group, said members aren't concerned about the changes in Washington, D.C.

"We look forward to working with Sen. Bingaman and new members of the congressional delegation," he said. "We think we've got a proposal that not only protects the land and has more of a public benefit for more people to enjoy."

DuBois said the group has met with Bingaman about the matter and has requested to meet with Udall and Teague.

Meanwhile, Jeff Steinborn, local director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the change in the congressional delegation is favorable, considering Pearce was opposed to a wilderness designation.

"It's hopeful to have people there who aren't ideologically opposed to you on ideological grounds," he said.

Steinborn said backers of wilderness have been in touch with members of the delegation, but he said he's not aware of any immediate plans for legislation.

"Having said that, clearly our delegation is now engaged in this issue, and we're very hopeful we can get legislation introduced in the next few months because it's time," he said. "We've all been at this as a community for over three years, and we've reached a high level of consensus, from our standpoint, on these areas."

The wilderness coalition is proposing that eight areas currently classed as temporary wilderness and two additional areas be turned into permanent wilderness, something only Congress can do. The total acreage of wilderness proposed is about 305,500. Also, the group has proposed a national conservation area — a less stringent designation — around the Organ Mountains that totals roughly 96,500 acres.

The wilderness designation prohibits mechanized travel in most instances.

Wilderness backers say the proposal is necessary to adequately protect sensitive areas in advance of development in the region. They argue it could boost tourism and quality of life. But ranchers say the designation, though it includes measures to grandfather in grazing, could ultimately hurt their livelihoods.

As an alternative to wilderness, ranchers have proposed creating two new federal land-use designations they say would both protect their operations and preserve open space.

Off-road vehicle user Homer Van Zandt of Las Cruces said he's in a "wait-and-see mode" with respect to the state's new congressional delegation. He pointed out that land-use issues, whether they involve wilderness or not, don't tend to be "Democrat-versus-Republican issues."

"There are people in both parties that are on both sides of the issue," he said. "I know the folks that advertise more wilderness are feeling they're in a much-stronger position in Congress, and that's probably true. But given the current state of our economy and world conditions, Congress has a whole lot more urgent things on its plate than that."

The temporary wilderness areas were studied by Congress as possibilities for wilderness. Actually creating wilderness required a second action, which Congress never took, leaving the land in a state of limbo for more than two decades. As a result, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been treating the areas in most ways as if they were wilderness.

Domenici in 2005 drafted a bill that would have created more than 200,000 acres of wilderness, and released about 65,000 acres for sale or trade. But he never introduced the bill. He has said he dropped it after strong opposition from conservationists over his proposal.

Is there room for compromise between groups?

Steinborn said opponents to wilderness "haven't shown a shred of flexibility," but it's possible.

"We'll continue to reach out and try for compromise," he said. "I think it's very fair to say that should any legislation move forward, they will absolutely be at the table."

DuBois, answering the same question, replied: "I think our group is willing to sit down with anybody and discuss our proposal and how it could be improved."

Diana M. Alba can be reached at dalba@lcsun-news.com; (575) 541-5443

On the Web

People for Preserving Our Western Heritage: http://peopleforwesternheritage.com

Doña Ana County Wilderness Coalition: http://donaanawild.org/citizens-proposal.php

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