U.S. Senate Passes Bills Protecting Wilderness in New Mexico

Bills part of public lands package will designate wilderness within New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Río Grande del Norte national monuments

Today, the U.S. Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act (S. 47), a public lands package that includes measures to protect Wilderness within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Río Grande del Norte National Monuments. The package includes dozens of other bipartisan public lands measures that would conserve some of our nation’s wildest lands and rivers, adding more than 1.3 million acres of public land to the National Wilderness Preservation System and nearly 500 miles of rivers to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. It would also reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Natural Resources Management Act now heads to the U.S. House of Representatives, where public lands users across the country are hopeful it will quickly pass.

“Protected public lands, like wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers are crucial for veterans in need of strength and solace,” said Jeff Dray, an Army Veteran from Las Cruces. “I want to thank Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich for fighting alongside us to protect these areas.”

Legislation to safeguard the wilderness in these two areas was first introduced by former Senator Jeff Bingaman in 2009 in the 111th Congress, and then again by Senators Udall and Heinrich in the 112th and 113th Congresses. In 2013 and 2014, President Obama established the Río Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments, after years of inaction from Congress. Many of the proposed wilderness areas enjoy temporary wilderness status as Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), but only Congress can designate an official wilderness area through legislation. 

Nick Streit, owner of the Taos Fly Shop added, “As the owner of a local business, lifetime northern New Mexico resident, hunter and fisherman, I applaud the efforts to permanently protect the Cerros del Norte Wilderness Study Areas. These remote, rugged and beautiful areas provide important habitat for wildlife and their protection will ensure not only a vibrant ecological landscape, but an economic asset as well.”

Both wilderness bills are decades in the making and are supported by New Mexicans across the state, including hunters and anglers, small business owners, veterans, elected officials, community and faith leaders, ranchers, and conservationists. The bills will designate roughly 263,094 acres of wilderness within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Río Grande del Norte national monuments. The bills were championed by Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, Governor Michele Lujan Grisham, and Congressman Ben Ray Luján.

“The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is part of the economic engine that helps drive small businesses and tourism in our community and knowing that it will be protected for generations to come helps businesses like Organ Mountain Outfitters thrive. We thank the Senators for their leadership and urge the House to pass this public lands package,” said Chris Lang, owner of Organ Mountain Outfitters in Las Cruces.

Both wilderness bills will further boost local economies. People come to the wildest places within the national monuments to hike, hunt, fish, ride horseback, bird, camp, and more.   These visits translate into real economic growth for the area. An EcoNorthwest study found that quiet recreation on BLM lands in New Mexico generated $173 million in 2014 and supported 1,712 jobs across the state.

Francisco Guevara, owner of Los Rios River Runners said, “My business employs over 60 people, and heavily depends on the protection of public lands. I am an owner of public lands. I want my lands protected from any threats that would decrease its value. I would like to hand over my public lands to my heirs, so they can enjoy and benefit from the unique values of these lands as much as I have. The most important and fragile of these values are Wilderness Areas, wildlife, and solitude. It is our duty to protect these lands for our children and grandchildren.”

The Natural Resources Management Act (S.47) now awaits a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. Community members across New Mexico are urging the House to pass the bill.

Background on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act

The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act was introduced by Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and would designate ten wilderness areas totaling roughly 241,000 acres within the 496,330-acre national monument. The proposed wilderness would give a higher level of protection to special lands within the monument. 

Hunting, livestock grazing, hiking, camping, horseback riding, firefighting, and law enforcement and border security activities would continue in the wilderness areas.  The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument contains approximately 306 bird species and 78 mammal species, including golden eagles, mule deer, javelina, cougar, ring-tail cat, and quail. The proposed wilderness will strengthen the wildlife habitat for these species as well as protect the watersheds that they depend on.

Background on the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act

The Cerros del Norte Conservation Act would designate two new wilderness areas – Ute Mountain (Cerro del Yuta) and Rio San Antonio – within the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, totaling 21,500 acres within the 242,500-acre national monument. It was introduced by Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, and Congressman Ben Ray Luján. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham was a co-sponsor when she was in the U.S. House of Representatives. People have been working to preserve these special areas for more than 25 years.

Grazing would continue in already-permitted areas, and water rights would not be impacted under the legislation. Additionally, traditional activities like wood and piñon gathering would continue.

The proposed wilderness areas within the national monument serve as one of the world’s great avian migratory routes. These areas are also home to important game species like pronghorn and elk. Additionally, the legislation would safeguard world-class recreation opportunities already enjoyed within the national monument, including hiking, hunting, and fishing.