Monday, March 23, 2009

Group pushes for more Gila wilderness, grazing buyout

The Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico is where famed naturalist Aldo Leopold first hatched the idea of setting aside the nation's untamed lands as wilderness.

Nearly 85 years ago, he helped carve the world's first designated wilderness out of the Gila.

Now, conservationists want the federal government to protect more land in the region, saying the diversity and remote roadless landscapes that straddle New Mexico and Arizona are on par with the country's top natural gems.

"It's because the wildlife and the wild landscapes down there are so exemplary that we think we have the Yellowstone of the Southwest," said Bryan Bird, public lands director for WildEarth Guardians.

The group released a report this month on what Bird calls a "novel" and "surgical" approach to protecting the greater Gila region, which includes parts of three national forests, a handful of wilderness areas and hundreds of thousands of acres managed by state and federal agencies.

The report recommends that roadless areas radiating from the Gila River and its headwaters be added to the nation's wilderness preservation system and that Congress authorize a voluntary grazing permit retirement program to elevate conflicts between the needs of ranchers and wildlife, namely the endangered Mexican gray wolf.

The area's old growth forests and iconic species are being threatened by the West's booming population, livestock grazing, mining and off-road vehicle recreation, Bird said.

"We think it's so important both ecologically and economically that it needs a new approach," he said.

But turning public land into wilderness takes an act of Congress, and that's no ease task.

Only the Wild Sky Wilderness in Washington state's Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest was designated last year, and conservationists say that proposal took several years to work through Capitol Hill.

The U.S. House is considering — for the second time — a massive public land package that would protect millions of acres in nine states. The measure has already been passed twice by the Senate and fell victim to parliamentary procedures during its first round in the House.

The other hurdle is that many ranchers aren't willing to retire their grazing rights and give up their livelihoods, said Caren Cowan, executive director of New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association.

"There are communities there, there are families there, there are businesses there," she said of the Gila region. "... I think they're just trying to perpetuate a myth that there's this great big pristine world that's untouched, and it's simply not true."

Cowan said the U.S. Forest Service has a mandate to manage lands like the Gila and neighboring Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona for multiple uses and that includes ranching.

She also questioned the timing of the proposal given the nation's economic woes.

"The idea that the government would have money to pay people not to produce and not work just seems ludicrous," she said. "Being able to produce things like food, minerals, timber and fiber are going to be what puts this country back on its feet."

Forest officials have seen the report, and say any designation of wilderness or the development of a grazing permit retirement program would have to be the wish of Congress.

Still, they agree with the report's characterization of the region as "majestic."

So do other outdoor enthusiasts.

"It's the marquee place," said The Wilderness Society's Michael Carroll, a Colorado resident who is fresh off a trip to the Gila. "It's hard to believe when you are down there that we have such a treasure that's tucked away there in southwestern New Mexico."

From a historical perspective, Carroll said the area is significant because of its connection to Leopold and the birth of the wilderness movement.

In 1924, Leopold urged his bosses at the U.S. Forest Service to seek protection for more than a half-million acres of roadless land within the forest and the Gila Wilderness was born.

It's also special because of its biological diversity and large swaths of untouched land.

"Because of these two assets, the bioregion is one of the increasingly rare landscapes in the American West where we can restore and save all the ecological parts," states the WildEarth Guardians report.

Bird said WildEarth Guardians wants to look strategically at grazing allotments in wolf territory or roadless areas. "This isn't just a blanket, one-size fits all approach," he said.

He also argued that protecting more wilderness would be a boon for property values, tourism and hunting and fishing.

The challenge, Carroll said, is protecting the land while still allowing people to use and enjoy it. He said wilderness protection has become more complicated than drawing lines on a map.

"It's about protecting the community and the way of life, looking really at the entire landscape around an area like the Gila and saying you can't divorce people from the landscape," Carroll said. "They are part of the landscape just as the landscape is part of them. It's what makes up the character of places like this."

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