An advertising campaign by one group supporting the creation of federal wilderness in Do-a Ana County proved to be the elephant in the room Tuesday, at a meeting of the Advertising Federation of Las Cruces.
The campaign and differing stances in the wilderness debate have created a wedge of sorts between two major business groups locally: the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce and the Hispano Chamber of Commerce de Las Cruces.
Leaders from both groups, as well as other supporters and opponents of the wilderness bill, were present at the monthly Advertising Federation meeting.
To talk about the advertising and publicity strategies each has used so far to get its message to the public.
It was about 45 minutes into the session before the Hispano Chamber's campaign, which includes an ongoing TV commercial on Comcast Cable, gained the spotlight.
Meeting organizers played the commercial, which urges support for Senate Bill 1689, saying it will conserve the outdoors for future generations. Afterward, wilderness bill critics from the Greater Las Cruces Chamber and People for Preserving Our Western Heritage, a ranchers group opposed to creating wilderness, pressed Hispano Chamber representatives to reveal the source of funding behind the campaign.
The Hispano Chamber declined to answer.
The group is a private nonprofit that's not required to disclose the source of its contributors.
Panelist Nathan Small, wilderness bill advocate and local representative with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, noted that the opponents and supporters of the wilderness legislation are comprised of a patchwork of groups. By straying into a discussion about who's spending how much on which campaign, "we get off track," he said.
The Hispano Chamber in July said it applied for a grant to fund the campaign.
John Mu-oz, a leader in the Hispano Chamber and local director for Sitel, on Tuesday pointed out that his group has supported the creation of wilderness ever since an initial proposal was put forward by U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., five years ago. Wilderness, he said, promotes quality of life.
"It would be an economic benefit if we kept those lands protected," he said.
But John Hummer, a Greater Las Cruces Chamber representative, said the presence of wilderness is not on the "top 10" list companies look at when deciding to relocate to an area.
The legislation, Senate Bill 1689, would create 241,400 acres of wilderness - considered the highest level of protection in the federal system - and 99,150 acres of national conservation area, which has more flexible land-use rules, in Do-a Ana County.
Officials with the Greater Las Cruces Chamber said they don't have a budget to publicize their stance on wilderness and have relied on interviews with the media and letters to the editor to carry their message.
Jerry Schickedanz, chairman of People for Preserving Our Western Heritage, said his own group has relied on a website and YouTube videos, as well as an email list.
Diana M. Alba can be reached at (575) 541-5443