Landlocked in New Mexico

  • Gary Lantz


It covers only 16,000 acres, but eastern New Mexico's Sabinoso Wilderness could easily provide the backdrop for a spaghetti Western movie. Scrub juniper and cactus shade cow plop among the clumps of buffalo grass and blue grama, while stark cliffs, canyons and deeply cleft trenches loom in the distance, looking a lot like the handiwork of a kid with a spoon in a giant sandbox.  This is almost desert, but not quite.

Eastern New Mexico may run a little lean on humanity, but it earns a thumbs-up for wide-open spaces. And thanks to the Wilderness Act of 1964, when Congress gave the green light to federal land-management agencies to protect and preserve lands with wilderness characteristics, designated wilderness areas must also be "administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people."

It is almost impossible to enjoy or use the year-old Sabinoso Wilderness, however, because you can't get into it. A dramatic part of the high plains bordering the Canadian River, the area is currently landlocked by the private property surrounding it. Ranchers with federal grazing permits can get through the gates, but those of us searching for the kind of wilderness experience that the writer Ed Abbey extolled – few people, no cars -- need to go elsewhere.

"Today is a great day for all Americans," exclaimed Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, when Congress voted to add Sabinoso to the wilderness system last year.  Newcomer said, "It is great to know that once the president signs this omnibus bill into law, Sabinoso will stay forever as it is -- for our children and grandchildren." Newcomer is obviously a wilderness prophet, since our children and grandchildren appear to have the best -- and maybe the only -- shot at ever enjoying the Sabinoso.

When Sabinoso became official, I called the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.  "How do you get into this place?" I asked.  "You don't," they answered. When I pressed for a reason, I was told to get in touch with the Bureau of Land Management.

James Sippel, a New Mexico BLM official, answered my e-mail a bit testily.  "You will see from our website that public access is not present, but BLM is working on developing it," he said.  Then he added a surprising bit of news: "Though we would like for the public to have access to this wilderness, public access is not one of the required characteristics for an area to qualify as wilderness."

Next came a note from the BLM's John Bailey.  "Yes indeed," Bailey said, "the legislative process works in strange and wonderful ways!  Several years ago the BLM recommended that the Sabinoso area not be designated wilderness because of the lack of public access and the fractured ownership pattern.  Nevertheless, because of the area's truly outstanding wilderness character, it was strongly pushed for designation by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance."

Bailey added that once it became apparent that the area would become official wilderness, the agency began talking to adjacent landowners to see if any would be interested in selling some land, or at least granting a public easement.  He said the agency hoped to have something worked out by the end of the year.

By this time, I wanted to get into Sabinoso the way a pit bull craves to shake a poodle.

During a recent road trip, I exited the blacktop at the Sabinoso turnoff and saw cactus in bloom and glowing like purple neon.  Cicadas were trilling, cliff swallows swarmed a bridge across the river, and water the color of creamed coffee poured over a downstream riffle.

Camera in hand, I stopped at a sign to authenticate my pilgrimage. In the distance, a sullen black storm surged skyward and spread over Sabinoso, spitting out raindrops the size of grasshoppers.  Then a mirage appeared -- a mirage that looked a lot like a Chevy Impala.

Chugging up a rutted dirt road I thought fit only for four-wheel drive vehicles, there rolled a dusty sedan sporting minimum clearance.  The men inside got out to open a gate. The Sabinoso, it seemed, had just been unofficially opened for business by a carload of Texans.

Experience has shown that if one Texan plants a flag, others will be inclined to follow – so I did. Now, this lonely little wilderness may be out of the closet, whether the feds like it or not.  Besides, Sabinoso was a wilderness study area for 30 years before Congress made its wilderness status official.  Just how long should it take the BLM to find a way in and out?

Gary Lantz is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( When not traveling through the West, he lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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