In the face of the Interior Department’s top-down decision to stop looking for new wilderness areas on federal land, some communities are working to protect wilderness from the bottom up. Sidestepping White House-appointed bureaucrats, wilderness advocates are working with their elected representatives in Congress.

Last June, the Coalition for New Mexico Wilderness — a group of over 375 businesses and local environmental organizations — along with Zia Pueblo, gave the New Mexico congressional delegation a proposal to preserve a rugged patch of northwest New Mexico, Ojito, as wilderness. The proposed bill would also sell federal land surrounding Ojito to Zia, whose people have lived nearby for almost 800 years.

In September, four of the state’s five legislators — New Mexico Reps. Tom Udall, D, and Heather Wilson, R, and Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D, and Pete Domenici, R — sponsored the Ojito Wilderness Bill in Congress. The bill would protect almost 25,000 acres, half of it as wilderness. Congress has yet to take action on the bill, but proponents are optimistic that it will pass in 2004.

"We’re going back to the basics: Build strong public support (for wilderness designations)," says Jim Scarantino, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. "We don’t rely on some bureaucrat to give us wilderness or take it away."

Give and take

A land of curvy hoodoos and badlands, Ojito has been a wilderness study area since 1991. At that time, Manuel Lujan Jr., Interior secretary under George H.W. Bush and a veteran Republican congressman from New Mexico, recommended it for wilderness protection. He sent a proposal to Congress, but lawmakers never got around to passing the bill. For the past 12 years, the rough terrain has been in limbo, with temporary protection as a study area.

Ojito might have remained in limbo if not for the 807-member Zia Pueblo, the source of the New Mexican flag’s red-on-yellow sun. For over a decade, Zia Pueblo has been trying to bridge two sections of its reservation with a parcel of Bureau of Land Management land that includes the proposed wilderness. The area contains pottery made by the pueblo’s ancestors, as well as places to dig clay to make new pottery.

The BLM and at least one environmental group, the New Mexico Native Plant Society, had opposed Zia’s effort, fearing that the pueblo might lock the public out. A December 2002 letter from the BLM expressed the agency’s "long-standing position" against transferring federal land to the pueblo, saying the action would not serve the "national interest" as required by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

But about three years ago, the pueblo reached out to wilderness advocates to fashion a compromise, which has won over at least one critic — the Native Plant Society. "I think that many people within the federal government were surprised that the environmental groups and the pueblo were able to work this out," says Peter Pino, an administrator for Zia. "They thought we would butt heads and never come together."

A BLM spokesperson declined to comment on the legislation, but at a county commission meeting last year, an agency employee sounded the only objection to the Ojito bill — specifically to the sale of public land to the pueblo. More recently, the Albuquerque Wildlife Federation, a hunting and conservation group, has also opposed that provision. The group’s president, Richard Becker, says he’s concerned the bill will "take that (land) out of the public domain and the potential use for hunters."

The bill would allow Zia to buy about 12,500 acres for the land’s market price, in return for the pueblo’s promise to leave it undeveloped and open to the public. To guarantee those restrictions, Zia agreed to waive its sovereign immunity from lawsuits. Some pueblo members initially opposed the provisions, Pino says, "but they realized that if this is going to happen, they’re going to have to make that concession."

The agreement has won support not only from the congressional delegation, but also from Gov. Bill Richardson, the county commissions of Sandoval County and neighboring Bernalillo County, the New Mexico commissioner of Public Lands, and a legion of American Indian and environmental groups. Sandoval County Commissioner Daymon Ely says, "From a local point of view, (in a county) where you have lots of controversy over wilderness issues, this was an exception to the rule."

Supporters hope the bill’s bipartisan support will carry it through a congressional committee hearing early this year, and on to a vote. "The neat thing about Ojito," says NMWA’s Scarantino, "is that here, in the face of a White House that is not pro-wilderness, the citizens of New Mexico made the system work for them. That’s the genius of the Wilderness Act."

The writer is a former HCN intern.

New Mexico Wilderness Alliance www.nmwild.org, 505-843-8696

Pueblo of Zia 505-867-3304