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.

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.

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.