The little wilderness that could

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

  • Tom Udall, center, meets with former Zia Pueblo Gov. Gilbert Lucero, left, and Zia Gov. Peter Pino on Ojito Mesa. Udall introduced the Ojito Wilderness bill with strong bipartisan support, as well as support from the Zia Pueblo, which gained land in the deal

    Photo courtesy New Mexico Wilderness Alliance
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Western Watersheds Project seeks a Tenth Circuit Staff Attorney to bring litigation in the interests of protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife, particularly focused...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....