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Zinke moves to provide public access to Sabinoso

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, rides next to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., in the Sabinoso Wilderness on July 29. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – Less than two weeks after visiting the state, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is moving forward with a plan to provide public access to the Sabinoso Wilderness in New Mexico, the only such federally designated wilderness that isn’t publicly accessible.

Zinke said Wednesday that he’s given the Bureau of Land Management a green light to complete the process to consider whether the federal government should accept the donation of 3,595 acres – formerly known as the Rimrock Rose Ranch – adjacent to the Sabinoso Wilderness, to be included as part of the wilderness.

The move to open the area to the public comes as New Mexicans are awaiting – some rather anxiously – Zinke’s decision on whether to recommend reducing the size of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte national monuments in New Mexico. That decision is due by Aug. 24.

The 16,000-acre Sabinoso Wilderness is enclosed by private lands. Zinke said adding the donated ranch acreage could make the area “accessible to hunters and all members of the public for the first time ever.”

The rugged and remote wilderness area is east of Las Vegas in San Miguel County in northeastern New Mexico.

“Expanding access to hunting, fishing and recreation on federal lands is one of my top priorities as secretary,” Zinke said. “I originally had concerns about adding more wilderness-designated area; however, after hiking and riding the land, it was clear that access would only be improved if the department accepted the land and maintained the existing roadways. Thanks to the donation of a private organization, we continue to move toward delivering this nonpartisan win for sportsmen and the community.”

This final acceptance phase is expected to take three to four months to complete.

Zinke, along with Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both D-N.M., toured the Sabinoso by horseback and on foot on July 29.

Udall said Zinke’s decision is “a testament to how beautiful this land is and the tremendous opportunity it holds for sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts and our state’s growing recreation economy.”

“Enabling access to this wilderness is something that many New Mexicans have worked toward for years, and while there are some details to work out to ensure the property is managed in accordance with the Wilderness Act, I want to thank Secretary Zinke for coming to New Mexico to see this stunning land for himself and for moving quickly to accept the donation of the Rimrock Rose Ranch property,” Udall said.​

The Sabinoso Wilderness boasts some of the most pristine elk habitat in the country. Zinke has previously voiced concerns about accepting the donated ranch as wilderness itself and whether there should other kinds of access beyond on foot or horseback.

During his New Mexico trip, Zinke said some issues still need to be worked out in the access plan, including how to provide access for firefighting equipment and infrastructure to serve visitors, such as parking area restrooms and directional signs.

Heinrich, an ardent hunter, has introduced legislation to open the Sabinoso Wilderness to the public. Heinrich said that if the private land is ultimately made part of the wilderness, it would be a “major gain for New Mexico.”

“The Sabinoso is the only legally inaccessible wilderness area in the entire nation,” Heinrich said. “Surrounded by private land and without a legal road or trail to get there, the public has effectively been locked out of this stunning landscape that we all own. By accepting this land donation as part of the wilderness, the Department of Interior will finally unlock the Sabinoso to the public.”

Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and a candidate in the Democratic primary for state land commissioner, joined Zinke and New Mexico’s U.S. senators on the Sabinoso tour last month. He cheered Zinke’s news on Wednesday.

“Giving Secretary Zinke a tour of this area was an honor, and I thank him for coming to New Mexico and seeing the years of work that went into making this happen,” Vene-Klasen said. “I’m glad the secretary intends to finalize this land donation. As a sportsman himself, I knew once he saw the prime hunting and fishing opportunities in this area, he would understand how important this is to the sportsmen and -women of New Mexico. I look forward to seeing this through so that hunters and anglers will have a rich new area to explore.”