The little wilderness that could

by Laura Paskus

New Mexico conservationists build support from the ground up, and win one


OJITO WILDERNESS, New Mexico — The nation's newest wilderness area is notable not only for what it has — badlands, sandstone hoodoos and uninterrupted views of nearby mountains and mesas — but for what it lacks. Out here, an hour northwest of Albuquerque, there are no roads or transmission lines; there are few established trails; and aside from a smattering of junipers and a few humongous ponderosas, the scrubby vegetation consists of rabbitbrush and bunchgrasses that cast long shadows in the low autumn sun.

Ojito also lacks surface water, known oil and gas reserves, and forests full of timber. In other words, there's little controversy. This helps explain how it won the backing of a wilderness-averse Congress and earned President Bush's signature on Oct. 26. But it took a lot of work for Ojito's supporters to get to this point, and in their struggle lie lessons for Western wilderness activists.

One of the toughest challenges the bill faced was getting across the desk of Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. Pombo, who has chaired the House Resources Committee since 2003, decreed earlier this year that he alone would determine which wilderness bills went on to the House (HCN, 7/25/05: Will the real Mr. Pombo please stand up?).

Last spring, Rep. Pombo released a new set of criteria by which he would judge all wilderness bills. In particular, he said, the land must be considered worthy of wilderness designation by the agency that manages it, not just by those citizens who want its protection. He also insisted that any proposal have the support of nearby communities, and of its home state's congressional delegation and governor.

"We were the first bill to literally go and tick off each (item), and to have an answer for everything in his criteria," says Martin Heinrich, director of the Coalition for New Mexico's Wilderness, whose members include more than 300 businesses and local organizations.

In fact, Ojito's champions had a running start. The Bureau of Land Management had designated the 11,000-acre area a "wilderness study area" in 1991, when the agency was required, under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, to recommend its wilderness-worthy lands to Congress. And in contrast to many nationwide wilderness campaigns of the 1990s, Ojito's champions had garnered support from the ground up (HCN, 8/30/04: “W” in 2004: Taking stock of wilderness at 40).

About five years ago, activists quietly began working with the nearby Zia Pueblo, which wanted to buy BLM land adjacent to Ojito (HCN, 1/19/04: In New Mexico, a homegrown wilderness bill makes headway). At the same time, they began building support among local ranchers and landowners. That helped convince two local county commissions, as well as the Albuquerque City Council, to pass resolutions supporting the Ojito Wilderness.

Eventually, they gained the backing of the state's Democratic congressmen, Rep. Tom Udall and Sen. Jeff Bingaman. Finally — and this was key, say those involved — Republicans Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson jumped on board.

In the end, it was Wilson — who rarely sides with the state's conservationists and has a lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters of just 15 percent — who pushed the bill past Pombo and out of committee. The House approved the bill by a voice vote, and the Senate passed it unanimously.

The bill was only the fourth wilderness bill to gain President Bush's signature. It protects 11,000 acres as wilderness, and authorized the Zia Pueblo to buy an additional 11,000 acres from the BLM, which will also be managed as de facto wilderness and kept open to the public.

The passage of the Ojito proposal may be a good omen for other wilderness bills. Although a total of nine bills are likely stalled for the rest of the year, the Senate has passed Washington state's 106,000-acre Wild Sky bill and the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act. Idaho's 300,000-acre Boulder-White Clouds bill has had a hearing before the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, but has yet to make it to Pombo (HCN, 11/22/04: Conservationist in a Conservative Land).

Each of these bills seems to have its weak spot, however. Timber companies are itching to get at the big trees of Wild Sky. Although Boulder-White Clouds has bipartisan support, it faces opposition from ranchers and well-organized off-roaders. Ranchers are unhappy about Arizona's Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness proposal as well, and a power company is anxious to build a transmission line there (HCN, 5/10/04: Small steps for wilderness).

Nonetheless, Doug Scott, a longtime wilderness activist and historian, believes wilderness bills will move through the next session of Congress. Wilderness activists continue to work cooperatively with locals to build bipartisan support, he says, and members of Congress are "paying attention to their constituents."

The author, HCN's Southwest editor, lives in Albuquerque.

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