Friday, September 18, 2009

Senators Udall and Bingaman outline plan for wilderness, Organ Mountains

LAS CRUCES - New Mexico's U.S. senators on Thursday announced a plan to create thousands of acres of federally designated wilderness in Do a Ana County, including protection for the Organ Mountains.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both D-N.M., introduced a bill that would designate 259,000 acres of land as wilderness, the highest level of federal protection. Also, the bill would place another 100,000 acres into a national conservation area, a type of protection that varies depending on the specific conditions set by Congress.

The bill was applauded by several groups that have advocated the creation of wilderness in the county since late 2005. However, it was met with skepticism by a pro-ranching organization that has criticized similar proposals in the past.

"The Organ Mountains are the backdrop for one of the most breathtaking scenic views in our state. Do a Ana County residents have been working for years to develop plans that would ensure these views are protected," Bingaman said in a news release. "I'm very glad that we now have a bill that will do just that even while ensuring the public continues to have access to this extraordinary space."

Bingaman chairs a key Senate panel - the Energy and Natural Resources Committee - which reviews land-use legislation.

Jeff Steinborn, local director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and a member of the Do a Ana County Wilderness Coalition, has been an outspoken supporter of the creating the new designations. He said the recent legislation was generated by the senators' offices and doesn't include as much land for protection as an initial plan by wilderness proponents.

"This is a real tribute of what can happen when community groups work together," he said. "There's a really broad range of voices who support this. The Hispano Chamber, for example, is very involved and very supportive. The League of Women Voters has been very involved and very supportive."

Sportsmen's groups and some developers have also backed the wilderness proposal.

But a group of ranchers, called People for Preserving Our Western Heritage, and off-road vehicle enthusiasts have opposed the creation of wilderness. Ranchers have said they fear it would decrease access to their leased pasture land, interfering with their livelihoods.

Frank DuBois, a former New Mexico agriculture secretary and a spokesman for the ranching group, said his organization was "surprised and disappointed (Bingaman) would ignore the concerns of over 800 businesses and individuals that are part of our organization."

DuBois said he's disappointed the senators didn't consider an alternative land-use plan put forward by his group that would have created new designations meant to ensure land was protected from development, while not impeding ranching.

Steinborn said he feels there's a "very good chance" of the bill passing in Congress.

According to a map from Bingaman's office, the bill - called the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act - would create:

• The Organ Mountains Wilderness and the Organ Mountains National Conservation Area, west of Las Cruces.

• The Potrillo Mountains Wilderness, the Aden Lava Flow Wilderness, the Cinder Cone Wilderness and the Whitehorn Wilderness, all located in southwestern Do a Ana County.

• The Sierra de las Uvas Wilderness, the Broad Canyon Wilderness, the Robledo Mountains Wilderness and the Desert Peaks National Conservation Area, all located south of Hatch and northwest of Las Cruces.

The proposal for federal wilderness in Dona Ana County was initially put forward in late 2005 by former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., but he dropped the proposal after conservationists opposed certain components, including a measure that would have released U.S. Bureau of Land Management acreage for development. The proposal later on was opposed by former U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who had introduced a bill aligned with the ranchers' plan.

Diana M. Alba can be reached at; (575) 541-5443

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