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Know the West

The little bill that... can't

  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.