Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
TRUJILLO, N.M – At a June U.S. Senate committee hearing, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich engaged in a testy exchange over a stalled deal that would provide public access to the federally designated Sabinoso Wilderness, 16,000 acres of spectacular canyon country in northeastern New Mexico “landlocked” by surrounding private property.
Zinke wouldn’t commit to accepting the particulars of a plan, first announced last year, for the non-profit Wilderness Land Trust to donate an adjacent former ranch to the federal government as an access point for hikers, horseback riders and hunters to enter the wilderness.
“Have you ever been there?” Heinrich asked rhetorically. Well, on Saturday, Zinke was there.
And after a horseback ride with Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall, an elk-and-chicken fajita lunch overlooking the Sabinoso’s Canyon Largo and conversations with a couple dozen hunting and wilderness advocates, Zinke said he has “very favorable impressions” of the access plan, with “fine points” and “final details” to be worked out.
“The view is a little different from the Potomac,” he told the Journal in an on-site interview, “than it is, the view, from here. And being on horseback is the best way to see it,” he said. There will be an announcement on the Sabinoso access issue “soon,” Zinke said.
On another hot topic, Zinke said the public shouldn’t expect major changes, “if any,” to two New Mexico national monuments he is reviewing under orders from President Donald Trump – the Rio Grande del Norte in Taos County and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in Doña Ana County, which were established via proclamation by former President Barack Obama.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and U.S. House member from Montana, has been in New Mexico to collect information and comment on the New Mexico monuments, holding meetings and other events in southern New Mexico Thursday and Friday.
He dismissed the suggestion he’s heard more from monument opponents than supporters. “Like today?” he asked, nodding toward the New Mexico Wildlife Federation leaders and public land advocates who cooked up the food and otherwise hosted the Sabinoso event.
“For the New Mexico monuments, it seems to be the majority of people are proponents of the monuments than opponents,” he said. “That’s different than in some areas where the grass-roots have a much more pronounced apprehension and objections to the monuments.”
He said, though, that Interior is reviewing specific issues, such as whether monument rules could affect flood control, fire suppression and even Border Patrol operations by, for instance, putting more red tape in front of road repairs after a flood. He also made a point of noting that “fifth- and sixth-generation” New Mexico ranchers with operations dating back to Spanish land grants – some ranchers have opposed the monument designations – “are a very important part of the culture.”
Zinke said he wanted to emphasize there are no plans to sell off Bureau of Land Management or other public lands. He heard in Las Cruces over the past few days that “a driving force” for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument was to protect against future sale of BLM territory.
“I want to ensure everyone that there is no plan or intention ever to divest BLM,” he said, with the exception of such previous transactions to give up acreage for schools or universities.
Optimism on Sabinoso deal
Sens. Heinrich and Udall, both Democrats, were optimistic about Sabinoso Wilderness access after their horseback tour with Republican Zinke. The three VIPs rode into Canyon Largo from a point reached over about nine miles of what are now unpaved, county and private roads from Trujillo, a village roughly 30 miles east of Las Vegas, N.M. Beforehand, the senators publicly thanked Zinke for making the trip to a remote part of New Mexico. “You were persistent,” Zinke said.
“I think there will be a good resolution,” said Udall. “I think it was really important for him to see how valuable this land is.”
Heinrich called the visit “very constructive,” and that he believed the access plan will be “moving forward.”
Zinke had been concerned previously about accepting the donated ranch as wilderness itself and whether there should be other kinds of access beyond on foot or horseback.
Zinke said Saturday that issues that still need to worked out in the access plan for the “gorgeous and unique valley” include how to provide access for firefighting equipment and infrastructure to serve visitors, such as parking area restrooms and directional signs, he said.
Zinke and the senators encountered a group of turkeys on their ride. The wilderness is also considered prime habitat for other game, including mule deer and elk. BLM officials who were part of a group that hiked into the canyon, where huge tarantula wasps were a highlight amid the cliffs and riparian areas along an intermittent stream, said it’s mostly hunters who are clamoring for access to the wilderness via the 3,600 acre-ranch that has been purchased by the Wilderness Land Trust.
“I think it went well,” said Wildlife Federation executive director Garrett VeneKlasen of Zinke’s visit. “I think this is going to happen. I’m very excited about it, as will our 83,000 members be excited about it. It needs to happen and it needs to happen quickly.”
Zinke said public lands are not a partisan issue. “No one is more passionate about public lands than I am,” he said. “You can be as passionate, but you can’t be more passionate.”