Edward Sullivan is the director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, a grassroots force for wilderness in New Mexico. He previously worked for the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C.

Monday, 13 Aug 2001

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.

At 8:00 a.m. on Monday, my legs still burn from this weekend’s jaunt into the high country of northern New Mexico. I went for a short weekend warrior backpack into the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area in the Carson National Forest outside of Taos. Although the clouds threatened rain almost the entire time, it rained not a drop. The trail was faint in spots, as the area is visited infrequently. The more notable Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest point, just across the valley and past the ski lifts, attracts most weekenders. But that’s why I chose this trail; I knew I’d be the only soul around.

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It only takes 16 miles of solitude to put many of the trials of the wilderness campaign into perspective. Yet, upon returning to the office, it takes five minutes to remind me how large our task really is. Because, in the end, we’re not just hoping to pass wilderness bills, we’re interested in developing a wilderness ethic that protects the land for all time. By working with organizations like the Wildlands Project, we hope to ultimately protect a network of wildlands across New Mexico. These lands would include not only wilderness areas, but also many of the lands in-between, where government agencies and land owners voluntarily manage lands for conservation.

Cabezon Peak.
Photo: Bill Stone.

That’s the big picture. Right now, we are in the middle of our first wilderness campaign. We’re seeking wilderness protection for 210,000 acres of federal land an hour northwest of Albuquerque called the “Cabezon Country.” It’s not a statewide network of protected lands, but it’s a start. The area is renowned for its incredible scenic beauty — and its ecologically damaged landscape. The Rio Puerco watershed, of which the Cabezon Country is a small part, is one of the most damaged watersheds on earth.

At 170 miles, the Rio Puerco is the longest tributary of the Rio Grande. It drains approximately 6,000 square miles of land, an area just a tad smaller than New Jersey. Over 400 years of human inhabitance have caused incredible erosion and down-cutting of the river’s banks. Now, where there were once cottonwood-lined streams with lush meadows and swamps, there is a dry, cracked landscape with very little tree cover and no standing water.

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Despite its poor ecological condition, the Cabezon Country is still an important passageway for animal species moving north to south between Santa Fe National Forest and Cibola National Forest. According to biologists, there is no other area between the two national forests more important to the natural migration of big critters like mountain lion, black bear, and many others. The off-road vehicle enthusiasts that are currently making in-roads into the area (quite literally) have little concern for exacerbating the erosion or damaging already sparse habitat.

Wilderness designation would free the area up from future damage and give the wildlife — as well as the hundreds of hikers, hunters, and horse-packers that frequent the area — a needed reprieve.

But big critters aren’t going to motivate our congressional delegation to protect this area as wilderness. They want to hear from voters, and that’s where we come in. Right now, we are organizing outreach events at all of the end-of-summer fiestas and concerts, getting letters to the editor into the local papers, and generating support from local businesses and elected officials.

That’s the easy part. The tough part is working with the local ranchers that have seen their way of life and the land they depend on literally wash away with every summer thunderstorm. They are often not too interested in working with “environmentalists,” and most environmental groups aren’t too interested in working with them. Fifteen years of lawsuits and personal threats at public meetings have pretty much eroded any common thread the two groups once held. Now, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance must rebuild the bridge if we hope to pass any wilderness legislation.

Sometimes, I wonder why I come back off the trail after my weekend warrior sojourns in the wilderness. But then again, I realize the reason there are wilderness areas still out there is because of organizations like this one.

Tuesday, 14 Aug 2001

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.

Our work to protect the environment ultimately comes down to one thing: public sentiment. If we are not convincing people of the need to protect our water, land, and air, then we have failed.

Often, we do fail. The president is currently running roughshod over a number of important environmental provisions. It’s not that the president has overwhelming public support to drill in the Arctic, can the Kyoto Protocol, or roll back clean air and water regulations; he’s just not hearing enough in opposition to it. People don’t think it’s important enough. There is not enough grassroots pressure out there to get people involved.

I was reminded of this today when I got off the phone with a woman from a community adjacent to land that the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is recommending for wilderness designation. She’s not convinced that any of the land near her home should be protected as wilderness, and she is going to do everything in her power to stop our proposal. We both agree that the land must be protected, but we do not agree on how. Obviously, I had not communicated my message very effectively, nor had I done a very good job of building grassroots support within her community first.

Throughout the West, activists are working to overcome stereotypes, polarization, and culture clashes. In many rural areas, “environment” has become a dirty word, and in other places, a four-letter one. Where have we gone wrong? When did protecting our environment become a rural versus urban, rich versus poor, liberal versus conservative issue?

The problem started when we stopped investing in the grassroots. In 1980s and early 1990s, it was thought that the battles were best fought and won in Washington, D.C. While the left divested in its grassroots, the right poured millions of dollars into schoolboard elections, church groups, Boy Scouts, and other aspects of small town America. And during that time, protecting the environment became something that high-powered lawyers or hippies did, not red-blooded Americans.

In most of the recent polling I’ve seen, ranchers and farmers are rated much more favorably by the public than environmentalists or conservationists. Why? Because farmers and ranchers feed people; we just save places or fish that don’t need saving. At least, that’s what the public thinks.

To get people motivated to protect anything, you have to answer for them one simple question: “What’s in it for me?” Why should a suburban mother or rural rancher care about protecting some wilderness or fish when they have to get the kids to soccer practice or tend to a sick calf 10 miles up canyon?

These are tough questions, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I bet we’ll have better luck looking back to the success of the early labor and civil rights movements than investing more in corporate branding techniques and focus groups. These early movements had a dream to share — and they were all grassroots all the time.

It is encouraging that many organizations are reinvesting in the grassroots. Slowly, local organizations are once again able to build and maintain the power they once had. By building local leaders, the people who don’t think we are credible sources when they read about our i
ssues in the paper can hear our message from the most credible sources they know — their neighbors.

I’m thrilled to work for one of those aspiring and growing grassroots organizations, but we do make errors sometimes. As I learned again today when I got off the phone with that rancher, we can’t just expect people to hear us when we speak. We need to be part of the community first. Strong, connected communities are what build public sentiment — and public sentiment is what is going to save our environment.

As we move forward to protect the Cabezon Country in central New Mexico, you can sure bet that we are going to remember to slow down, meet the neighbors, and find out what’s important to them first. Because if we aren’t speaking the same language and sharing the same values, we’re just more environmentalists trying to save something that doesn’t need saving.

Wednesday, 15 Aug 2001

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.

Brett Myrick, a fifth-generation New Mexican and ex-Navy Seal, has been riding his bike around the state for almost a month now. On Saturday, he will complete his 700-mile odyssey with a triumphant cruise into Albuquerque. His trip has taken him from Taos in the north, south to Las Cruces, over to Silver City, and through every town in between. He’s not just riding for fun, however — he’s riding for roadless!

Brett has worked for the last three years in the Gila National Forest in southern New Mexico. In early June, he quit working for the government and stopped in our offices — and boy, was he pissed! Brett said he’d had enough of the new administration and its attacks on the environment. He was especially upset that the administration was making efforts to roll back what’s called the “Roadless Area Conservation Rule” — a new law enacted by the Clinton administration to protect more than 58 million acres of forests nationwide from any new development or road building.

Over the next month, we helped Brett put together a statewide tour to educate people and the press about this important policy and Bush’s attempts to stamp it out. On 18 Jul, Brett pulled his 10-speed out of Taos with a “Riding for Roadless” banner waving off the back.

First, let me provide a little background on the policy. More than 20 years in the making, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule protects the last wild 30 percent of our national forests. The majority of our forests have already been logged, mined, or roaded by big corporations that make a killing at the expense of our wild heritage. Over the past three years, the U.S. Forest Service engaged in a public-comment process to see what people thought about the proposal to protect these lands. After 600 public hearings and 1.5 million letters and postcards, more than 95 percent of the comments received favored protecting these wild forests for future generations.

Fast forward to 20 Jan 2001 — Inauguration Day. In one of his first acts as president, Bush signs an executive order suspending implementation of the policy. This summer, the administration put the policy back on the block for public review. Our buddy, Brett Myrick, is making sure that the people of New Mexico send their letters early and often!

For a state like New Mexico, a guy riding around preaching the wilderness gospel is big news. Brett has been on every radio news show — some twice. He’s been interviewed by almost every newspaper in the state, and one even ran an entire half-page article with his interview. He’s also ridden his bike down winding mountain passes, through torrential summer downpours — and he’s done it all on his own.

It’s not that the roadless policy itself is making the headlines these days (most outlets covered it ad nauseam last year), but that Brett is just the kind of guy with a passion whom people are attracted to. Everywhere he’s gone this last month, he and his forest protection message have been welcomed with open arms. He’s held rallies in mining towns, been invited for dinner and a good night’s rest by a Navajo grandmother, and touched the hearts of hundreds of tired activists around the state. He’s also collected over 1,000 comments to boot!

For all of us at the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Brett has served as an inspiration. His dedication to what he believes in drives to the heart of what being an environmental activist is all about.

If you want to get comments in to the Forest Service to uphold the Roadless Policy, visit www.ourforests.org or write (by 10 Sept 2001) to:

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
c/o 122 C St NW Suite 240
Washington, D.C., 20001

Do it for your kids, or just do it for Brett!

Thursday, 16 Aug 2001

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.

Under the hot New Mexico sun, hundreds of dancers beat the Earth with their moccasins at the Zia Pueblo Feast Day today, while hundreds of onlookers gazed in wonder. I was invited as a guest of the tribal administrator, whom I almost didn’t recognize in his ceremonial attire. I spent the afternoon at the pueblo, enjoying home-cooked food, great conversation, and the enchanting beat of the Zia’s drums and dances. Days like today are definitely what I love most about my job.

As I stood there in my dusty jeans, basking in the best part of my job, I realized that this morning I’d been a world away, doing a slightly less enjoyable part of my job — lobbying Congress. Dressed in a dark gray suit and cop shoes, I met with a staffperson from the office of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M) to discuss the merits of our wilderness proposal.

We also talked about the Zia Pueblo’s interest in acquiring a sizable chunk of public land adjacent to the land in our proposal. The Zia hope to regain control of thousands of acres of land that they often use for ceremonial and religious purposes, and we’re trying to work with them. To many people, it was theirs first anyway.

As our organization works to protect special landscapes throughout New Mexico, we learn about and are respectful of the state’s thousands of years of history. With partners like our friends at the Zia Pueblo, that part is easy, because, luckily, we all have one thing in common — we want to protect the land.

In other areas, it is not so simple. New Mexico’s history is riddled with stories of crooked land deals, family ranches lost at a poker table, and entire mountainsides sold for a bottle of booze. For this, we’ve had hundreds of years of resentment, infighting, and finger-pointing. This truly is the “Wild West.”

Take the Zia tribe, for example. In the not-so-recent past, there were less than 100 tribe members left: Most were wiped out by disease or war, and little of their land remained. Earlier this century, the federal government paid back the tribe for lands that had been taken. The hitch is, the feds paid the tribe in nineteenth-century dollars — and subtracted the cost of blankets!

Out of this sordid past, some tribes have legal claims to certain pieces of land, and others have little more than anecdotal evidence that their people had used certain lands at one time. Either way, the lands they would hope to reclaim are currently under federal or private control.

With the private property rights madness that has taken hold of the West, it is unlikely the tribes will ever reclaim any lands they once occupied that are currently in private hands by any means other than buying them. This is generally cost-prohibitive, since most tribes have meager sources of income, aside from the “casino tribes,” but that is a different story. This means the only option for most tribes is to seek acquiring public lands.

The federal government could quickly divest of its entire public lands system if it opened the floodgates to all native claims. For this reason, very few tribes have actually acquired large tracts of land from the federal government.

One e
xception is the Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico. They acquired a huge tract of wilderness high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the early 1980s. For many people, this was a scary prospect, as not every tribe had been exemplary stewards of their lands in the past (economic desperation will do funny things to people). Contrary to these fears, however, the Taos Pueblo has done a better job managing the Blue Lake Wilderness than the U.S. Forest Service ever could have.

Our hope is the same for the Zia Pueblo. They want to acquire 15,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land, and we hope to designate as wilderness 11,000 acres of land right next to it. Our goal is to work together and support each other to get both done. The odds are against both proposals, so perhaps by joining forces we can speak with a louder voice.

So, that is why I was invited to the tribe’s celebration today. It proved to be an enriching experience, and I learned to appreciate even more the vivid culture of this small group of people. If only tomorrow could be as enlivening … but I’m not sure it will be. I came home tonight to news that the Sandoval County Commission will be voting tomorrow evening on a resolution to oppose our wilderness proposal. Our proposal is in Sandoval County. This is definitely not good.

Friday, 17 Aug 2001

BERNALILLO, N.M.

At 6:30 last night, I learned that the Sandoval County Commission would be considering a resolution to oppose our wilderness proposal. As I mentioned yesterday, this is not good. We spent the day frantically lobbying the commissioners, lining up our business allies in the area, and calling through our membership list for that part of the state. In the end, the commission voted against us, but we were not surprised. This is, after all, New Mexico.

Although New Mexico is actually the “Birthplace of Wilderness” (a fact most New Mexicans do not know), very few people have any idea what wilderness designation really means. At the hearing tonight, I listened to over an hour of misinformation and insinuations about how wilderness designation would stamp out the rural way of life for local ranchers. Again, I wasn’t surprised.

Three weeks ago, I reached out to some local ranchers to talk about our proposal. I drove out to Bernalillo, the Sandoval County seat, to meet with a handful of folks and was surprised when I was greeted by 25 pickup trucks in the parking lot. My little meeting to talk about wilderness with a couple folks turned into a two-and-a-half hour session with well over 50 ranchers arguing over the merits and repercussions of wilderness.

Just a brief point of clarity of what wilderness is anyway: Wilderness areas are special tracts of land protected by Congress from development, oil and gas drilling, off-road vehicle use, and other destructive things. You can, however, hike, hunt, camp, fish, ski, horseback ride, and graze cattle in wilderness. Needless to say, this message did not completely sink in with the cowboys at my little meeting, and many of the same folks came out for the County Commission meeting tonight.

I can’t really blame anyone for opposing us. As I wrote on Tuesday, most of the folks out in Sandoval County have no reason to trust a bunch of enviros from the city. For one, we’re not part of the community (although it’s hard to say many folks outside the two or three main Hispanic family lines are part of the community). Many of these families have been on the same piece of land for over 200 years. New Mexico is probably one of the only places in the country where you can live in a place for 30 years and still be called a newcomer.

The other reason there is a lot of distrust is because these folks have all been burned before by the left and the right. Ten years ago, the right-wing corporate front group, People for the West, came through raising money and making lofty promises to keep the “environmental extremists” from taking their land rights. Well, the “environmental extremists” came along with their lawyers and Endangered Species Act and shut down logging, grazing, and mining practices all over the place — and the “People for the West” were nowhere to be found. Bent over on both sides of the aisle, these folks learned to circle the wagons whenever there were perceived threats, and with that, any chance of organizing locally was shattered.

But despite the staunch opposition we’ve run into on this proposal, we are adamant about continuing our efforts to organize locally. The wall can be only so tall and the distrust only so deep. The dedication and success of people like Brett Myrick, and the openness and integrity of the Zia Pueblo, make all of the animosity of tonight seem so petty and give us all hope.

In the end, we know that New Mexico’s history is one continuous struggle to overcome adversity. Every major advancement this humble state has made was first met with skepticism and recalcitrance. With the truth on our side, I think we will have great success in the coming years. But first, we need to remember Cesar Chavez’s great secret to his organizing success: “First I talk to one person, then I talk to another person, and then I talk to another person.”

Thanks for staying with me for “a week in the life.” It’s been fun.