Wilderness In Our Time as President Signs Bill Protecting New Mexico Wilderness

Local communities worked for decades to safeguard Wilderness in Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Río Grande del Norte national monuments

The President of the United States today signed into law the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, a public lands package that includes measures to protect Wilderness within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Río Grande del Norte national monuments. Diverse stakeholders across New Mexico worked for decades to conserve these areas.  New Mexico’s entire Congressional delegation – Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Representatives Ben Ray Luján, Xochitl Torres Small, and Deb Haaland— voted in favor of the legislation.

The public lands package adds more than 1.3 million acres of public land to the National Wilderness Preservation System, 621 miles of rivers to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The legislation also includes dozens of other bipartisan public lands measures that conserve some of our nation’s wildest lands and rivers.

“These are the lands where our ancestors walked. It is where they lived, and they passed their traditions down to us,said Rafael Gomez, Jr., Tribal Council member for the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.  “Now it is our duty to pass these same traditions down to our children and grandchildren. I want to thank our entire delegation for preserving our ancestral homelands.

Local communities have been advocating for Wilderness protection in these two areas for decades. Legislation 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 respectively.  Many of the proposed Wilderness areas enjoy temporary status as Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), but only Congress can designate an official Wilderness area through legislation.

“We are very grateful that there is now designated Wilderness within Río Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments, which provide the highest degree of protections for these unique and magnificent watersheds long into the future.  It will be reassuring to know that our great-great grandchildren as well as future generations of plants and animals will know these beautiful places as we know them now,” added Roberta Salazar, executive director of Rivers and Birds, a nonprofit that brings kids together with nature in Taos.

Both Wilderness measures included in the package 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 bill will designate 263,094 acres of Wilderness within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Río Grande del Norte national monuments, and roughly 7,000 acres to be known as the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness.  The bills were championed by Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, Governor Michele Lujan Grisham, and Congressman Ben Ray Luján.

Taos Pueblo War Chief, Bernard Lujan, said, “Taos Pueblo is grateful to hear that our local community has gained more wilderness in Taos County with the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act passage in Congress. Many wildlife species migrate back and forth between our big mountain ranges that provide sustainability for future generations.  These Wilderness Areas also help provide wildlife with food and shelter to ensure the wild integrity of our wilderness area.”

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 Bureau of Land Management lands in New Mexico generated $173 million and supported 1,712 jobs across the state in 2014.

Stuart Wilde, owner of Wild Earth Llama Adventures and longtime supporter of Wilderness in Taos County said, “The passage of the Cerros del Norte Bill will permanently protect the Río San Antonio Wilderness Study Area, which was set aside in 1980 to protect its critical wildlife habitat. It will also designate the Cerro del Yuta Wilderness, which is the tallest point in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, and was once owned by private developers. Conservation of our public lands not only ensures that our most special places are protected for future generations, but also benefits the local economy by attracting visitors, who come to marvel at our unspoiled wilderness landscapes. Thanks to our amazing Congressional Delegation, and to all the local community advocates, who worked so hard to see these areas protected for future generations.”

Celebrations are planned in Las Cruces and Taos. More details to follow.

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 and 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 Río 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. Local community members 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.