For 13 years, the Ojito Wilderness Study Area — a 24,000-acre patch of semi-arid land just 40 miles from Albuquerque — has awaited full-fledged protection under the Wilderness Act. But despite the support of Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists, ranchers, miners, city folk and local American Indian tribes, the land has not been designated wilderness — because New Mexico’s Republican senator still has some concerns (HCN, 1/19/04: In New Mexico, a homegrown wilderness bill makes headway).
In October, the Ojito proposal was tacked
on to a Nevada wilderness bill and escorted through the U.S. House
of Representatives by New Mexico Reps. Tom Udall, D, and Heather
Wilson, R (HCN, 9/13/04: A water-and-wilderness bill kicks up dust
in Nevada). But the bill stalled in the Senate when Sen. Pete
Domenici, R-N.M., who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources
Committee, objected. Because of New Mexico’s water problems,
Domenici said, the bill must forfeit any reserved water rights
before it can pass.
But because Ojito is dry as a bone,
some wilderness supporters believe Domenici is actually trying to
set a precedent for future wilderness designations by using the
water issue to make an uncontroversial bill controversial.
"Domenici’s trying to find ways to erode the strength of the
Wilderness Act," says Steve Capra, executive director of the New
Mexico Wilderness Alliance. "It’s radical; there’s no
other word for it."
With this year’s congressional
session over, the bill is dead, and will need to be reintroduced in
both the House and Senate next year.