On the environment front, good news arrives from an unexpected quarter.
Out of Las Cruces, a group called People for Preserving Our Western Heritage has made a historic proposition. With the support of a growing list of businesses and organizations, they are calling for the permanent protection of 302,000 acres of federal lands in Doña Ana County.
Why “historic”? The proposal comes from ranchers.
This isn’t the first grand vision for protecting expanses of land encircling New Mexico’s fastest-growing city. Several years go, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society and other environmental organizations also proposed protecting a huge chunk of federal land. They advocated using the Wilderness Act and a National Conservation Area to ensure the land remained undeveloped. They gained a lot of quick support. But miscalculations and missteps have brought their effort to a standstill.
The Doña Ana County Sheriff and Sheriff’s Posse, as well as the National Association of Former Border Patrol Agents, opposed the plan. They argued it would unwisely restrict law enforcement and hamper rescue operations. They were particularly concerned about any wilderness designation limiting motorized vigilance in border areas.
The Elephant Butte Irrigation District spoke out. It raised concerns about obstacles wilderness designation would create for flood control and ideas for augmenting water supplies in New Mexico’s lower Rio Grande valley.
Ranchers, farm credit institutions and the agricultural industry objected. They concluded the stringent restrictions of wilderness designation would make it more difficult for ranchers to continue already hard-pressed enterprises. Ranchers supported the goal of preserving open space. But they warned that ranch failures meant subdivision of their properties, a consequence directly contrary to the goal of preserving rural Doña Ana County.
Wilderness people seriously mishandled relations with Sen. Pete Domenici. They had looked to him to lead the legislative effort. Working with local governments, his staff drafted an ambitious wilderness protection bill. Because it contained a land disposal provision—a provision already present in long-standing federal management plans—
The Village of Hatch recently rescinded support for the wilderness proposal claiming, among other things, deception by wilderness activists. Congressman Steve Pearce, once on board with Domenici’s bill, has announced reservations about any new wilderness designations. Sen. Bingaman is steering clear of the mess. The Internet homepage of the Doña Ana Wilderness Coalition (www.donaanawild.org) has been reduced to a lifeless placeholder site directing traffic elsewhere.
In contrast, the ranchers’ volunteer-operated website www.peopleforwesternheritage.com offers audio-visual presentations, position papers, access to public documents and nearly daily updates. It blows away anything the well-funded environmentalists are serving up. That’s but one indication of who’s got momentum in this contest.
Ranchers, though, are not playing the role of single-minded obstructionists. It appears they meant what they said about wanting to protect open space. They propose to do it principally by protecting undeveloped land without calling it “wilderness.”
The draft legislation, titled “Doña Ana County Planned Growth, Open Space and Rangeland Preservation Act,” would prohibit the federal lands at issue from ever being sold, mined or drilled. The proposal’s innovative “special preservation area” designations set aside vast stretches of open space around Las Cruces but are flexible enough to accommodate law enforcement, agriculture, recreational needs of a growing urban population, and irrigation and floodwater authorities.
In a bill covering 302,000 acres there will certainly be many contentious details. And, no, this bill won’t create a formal wilderness like the Gila or the Pecos. But the promise of the ranchers’ initiative, coming from a group many environmentalists malign as “anti-environment,” is too important to ignore.
New Mexico is split down the middle on most issues. Environmentalists frequently think rallying their own regiments suffices. Perhaps that’s why we’ve only seen one small citizen-initiated wilderness bill pass in the last two decades. That bill, protecting the Ojito Wilderness, succeeded because it had bipartisan leadership and buy-in from local landowners and ranchers. The same can be said for the legislation that saved Valle Vidal from natural gas drilling.
This initiative from Doña Ana ranchers offers hope for protecting public lands in Doña Ana County and elsewhere in New Mexico. Environmental organizations that have claimed a monopoly over that particular line of conservation work have shown they can’t get the job done. The fizzled Doña Ana wilderness campaign is only the latest golden opportunity bungled by professional activists. While they stumble yet again, the state is filling up fast with new people. We don’t have decades to waste any longer.
Maybe it’s past time to let someone else, someone outside the usual enviro circles, have a shot at it. Some fresh faces, shaded by the broad rims of cowboy hats, are volunteering for the job.