By Diana M. Alba DALBA@LCSUN-NEWS.COM
LAS CRUCES -- A proposal backed by Congressman Steve Pearce, R-N.M., would roll back wilderness-like protections from three Do a Ana County mountain ranges, as well as other land throughout the West.
The bill was applauded by local off-road vehicle enthusiasts and ranchers, who've complained the designations keep them off public lands, but condemned by wilderness proponents, who said it is the latest in a series of attacks by Pearce on the environment.
In Do a Ana County, the bill, H.R. 1581, would get rid of about 32,700 acres of wilderness study area, a temporary status treated like wilderness, which is the highest level of protection for federal lands.
A look back
Congress directed agencies to catalogue public lands in the 1970s and evaluate them for wilderness potential. In 1993, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management made its recommendations about potential wilderness in New Mexico.
In Dona Ana County, some 181,100 acres -- including in the Organ Mountains and West Potrillo Mountains -- were declared suitable for wilderness, while about 32,700 acres weren't, according to the report.
Despite the recommendations, Congress never took action, and the inventoried lands in Do a Ana County have been in a limbo state since.
Full-fledged, permanent wilderness status prohibits the use of mechanized vehicles -- at the heart of most contention surrounding the designation. Indeed, that was the focus a five-year debate about creating wilderness in Dona Ana County that cooled last December with the expiration of a bill by U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
No land in the in the Robledo or Sierra de Las Uvas mountains, in the west and northwest Do a Ana County, was recommended suitable for wilderness in 1993. They're among the temporary wilderness designations that would go by the wayside, if Pearce's bill were passed. About 8,600 acres in the West Potrillos, located in the southwestern part of the county, also would be removed.
Both are areas popular among off-road vehicle enthusiasts. But environmentalists contend they're scenically and ecologically valuable areas that merit wilderness protection.
Told about Pearce's proposal, ATV and off-road enthusiast Bob Duffey of Las Cruces said he favors removing some wilderness study area designations. The off-roading community, for the most part, uses public lands responsibly, he contended.
"There's enough land for everybody," said Duffey, a world champion motorcyclist. "We're not the big enemies they think we are."
Duffey pointed out that other states, including Utah, have benefited economically from promoting ATV recreation.
A notice sent by Pearce and two other sponsors soliciting support from other congressmen noted a number of off-roading, four-wheeling and logging groups that back the bill.
But Las Cruces City Councilor Sharon Thomas, a wilderness proponent, said the bill is a step backward. Getting rid of the designations would open up "very fragile lands" to more off-roading and development, she said.
"They're already being grazed upon, and that's probably enough," she said. "That's some risk; I don't think we should add anymore risks."
In addition to scrapping certain wilderness-study-area acreage, the bill would get rid of roadless areas within national forests that also haven't been recommended to become wilderness.
If passed, said Pearce spokesman Eric Layer, the lands would be managed as multiple-use, "which would allow for more recreational access and responsible resource development."
"Congressman Pearce is co-sponsoring this bill because it is a common-sense approach that simply codifies the recommendations of two federal agencies," he said in an email. "This is about seeking a common-sense solution to a land management issue in the West."
Should a wilderness study area designation be removed, the BLM would fall back to its long-term management plan, said Tom Phillips, with the agency's Las Cruces office. That offers protections for certain areas, including for environmental resources. For instance, if the Organ Mountain study area were lifted for some reason -- though that's not an actual proposal in the recent bill -- there would still be an administrative protection in place, he noted.
The legislation is likely to wind up a political statement only, given it's not backed by Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the panel that reviews wilderness bills. And the Senate and presidency are controlled by Democrats.
Bingaman, in an emailed statement, said H.R. 1581 would "take away existing protections from millions of acres of roadless areas managed by the Forest Service and BLM without properly considering the merits of each specific area."
"It could negatively impact the clean water we rely on that comes from these watersheds, and it could harm the fish and wildlife on our public lands that hunters and anglers use," he said. "For those reasons, I would oppose this legislation if it came to the Senate."
Pearce in 2008 introduced legislation to counter a wilderness proposal circulating in Do a Ana County. It would have eliminated wilderness study areas, while creating two new designations that would have restricted certain development while encouraging ranching. It never passed.
Now, the BLM manages temporary wilderness conservatively.
Phillips described that as a "non-impairment standard," meaning the agency is attempting to preserve the lands, in case Congress ever decides to declare them permanent wilderness.
Some roads through temporary wilderness have been closed off, Phillips said. Still, there are some allowed routes, called "ways," Phillips said. Drivers, including ranchers and hunters, can use those roads, though they're not maintained routinely.
Also ranchers -- because wilderness allows ranching activity to continue -- can enter the areas with equipment to maintain water tanks periodically.
The BLM doesn't permit new roads in wilderness study areas, Phillips said, though he acknowledged the public does cut new, unauthorized dirt tracks.
If temporary wilderness was removed, Phillips said the agency could consider OK'ing new roads, as long as the area didn't have another type of protection under the agency's long-term plan. Projects would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, he said.
"That's what we do now on land that's not WSA," he said.
Frank DuBois, a former New Mexico agriculture secretary and outspoken critic of the former Dona Ana County wilderness proposal, said he's aware of utility corridor projects that have "been delayed or re-routed at great expense" because of temporary wilderness. And one Dona Ana County rancher recently experienced a five-month wait while trying to get an OK to revamp a dirt tank, he said.
The proposed legislation isn't unreasonable, considering the BLM didn't recommend the areas be granted permanent status, DuBois said.
"I think the legislation is the ultimate in common sense," he said.
However, just because the BLM didn't recommend that these areas become wilderness does not preclude residents from seeking the designation independently, said Las Crucen Jeff Steinborn, a New Mexico Wilderness Alliance director who helped spearhead the legislation to create new wilderness. The bill, if passed, would hurt quality of life, hunting and recreation locally, Steinborn contended.
"To unilaterally roll back the protections makes no sense," he said. "It's not the type of vision most of us espouse in this county."
Diana M. Alba can be reached at (575) 541-5443.