The last time we succeeded in setting aside a few acres of our state's disappearing wilderness, we had a president who joked that trees cause pollution. So here's great news: Congress has passed the Ojito Wilderness Act, the first New Mexico wilderness legislation since 1986.
Some call it poquito Ojito, because it's technically only 11,000 acres of designated wilderness, just a few miles outside Rio Rancho. But poquito Ojito also means 14,000 contiguous acres that Zia Pueblo will protect as open space with public recreational access. That makes it bigger than Bandelier National Monument or the wilderness around Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's tallest mountain. Not too shabby, considering who's running Washington, D.C. these days.
Bigger than Ojito's size is its significance, for it has reversed nearly two decades of wilderness failures. So that Ojito might mean more than a lonely, broken bat single in the bottom of the ninth, that story needs telling.
Conservation groups justifiably brag about New Mexico's wilderness legacy. The wilderness movement was born here in Aldo Leopold's vision for the Gila. Clinton Anderson, one of our greatest U.S. senators, cosponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act. Sen. Pete Domenici prides himself on protecting over a million acres of our federal lands. He considers the Sandia Wilderness one of his proudest achievements. And from the eloquence of his speech while introducing the Ojito bill, you know Sen. Jeff Bingaman deeply loves the natural beauty of our state and wants more protected.
You can't blame our senators that we've gone nearly two decades without new wilderness legislation. In 1991, they were ready to start adding almost 900,000 more acres, until big environmental groups killed the deal. Yup. Professional environmentalists stood in the way of greatly enlarging New Mexico's protected wild lands. My sources for this outrageous charge? No less than members of congressional staffs and federal agencies, and one of New Mexico's senators.
Years of work went into that effort. Our senators had readied legislation protecting more land than we'd ever seen in a single wilderness bill. But at the last minute, two key national environmental organizations pulled the plug, saying they would rather gamble for a better deal in the next Congress.
Some bet. By 1994, a new breed of Republicans had begun their takeover of Capitol Hill, followed by the White House in 2000. So much for that bigger, better deal.
The Cabezon wilderness debacle in 2001 didn't help. Environmentalists tried to impose a large wilderness proposal upon a remote corner of Sandoval County. They never bothered to ask first how local residents and officials felt about the idea. Of course, it exploded in their faces. The Sandoval County Commission condemned the effort, and both houses of the New Mexico Legislature passed nearly unanimous resolutions against any wilderness designation for Cabezon country.
It sure looked like no more wilderness designations in New Mexico for the foreseeable future. Yet President Bush will soon sign the Ojito Wilderness Act. Why the turnaround?
Conservationists, having conclusively proven the futility of other options, got real. They acknowledged they were dealing from a position of relative weakness. They steered clear of grandiose pipedreams of wilderness corridors stretching from the Yucatan to the Artic and settled for protecting what was within reach. They sought places with local support for preserving the land and, just as importantly, little opposition. And to get the job done, they concluded they didn't need national environmental groups; they just needed Big Green not to screw things up again. If progress were to be made in New Mexico, New Mexicans would have to make it happen.
Instead of dumping money into the sort of loud campaigns pricey consultants love, conservationists worked quietly and cheaply. You didn't see pious greenies. They didn't even talk like environmentalists. You didn't hear them once quote Edward Abbey, or let words like “biocentrism” pass their lips. Instead, they always talked about people. Like the people of Zia Pueblo, who care about the land for religious and cultural reasons. Or ranchers who don't want the area ever developed. Or business and local government leaders who understand the importance of wild lands for our human communities.
Conservationists, particularly City Councilor Martin Heinrich, shielded the Ojito campaign from ideology and partisan politics. That made it possible for Reps. Heather Wilson and Tom Udall to steer the legislation through a House committee not eager for any more federal wilderness.
We've got similar opportunities to protect other special places—places people care about deeply. Conservationists have learned how to do the job right. If you'll forgive another sports metaphor (I've been diagnosed with severe World Series fever), let me phrase it this way: Now that Ojito has put a runner on first, and with solid hitters on deck, we can load the bases and bring 'em home, a bunt, a walk or even a broken bat single at a time.