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Senate OKs monument sites as wilderness areas

WASHINGTON – In one of its final acts before the holiday recess, the U.S. Senate late Thursday voted to set aside 21,000 acres within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument for wilderness protection, which would keep the area free of roads or other development.

The bill, which was approved unanimously in the Senate, establishes two new wilderness areas, the Cerro del Yuta Wilderness and Rio San Antonio Wilderness in the monument near Taos. The legislation has not yet passed the U.S. House. A wilderness designation offers a greater level of protection from development and other non-natural uses than monument status.

“This legislation will further complete the vision of the diverse coalition and stakeholders who fought so hard to protect the Río Grande del Norte National Monument and will preserve traditional practices and boost New Mexico’s growing outdoor recreation economy,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who sponsored the legislation. “By designating the most rugged and unique habitat in the Río Grande del Norte as wilderness, we can protect New Mexico’s natural heritage for our children and for generations to come.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a co-sponsor of Heinrich’s bill, has also introduced legislation to establish federally protected wilderness within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, near Las Cruces.

Michael Casaus, New Mexico director of the Wilderness Society, urged the House to follow the Senate’s action in creating the wilderness area within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

“We call on the House to do their part and listen to the call of millions of Americans who believe we should protect wilderness areas,” Casaus said. “From the ruggedness of Ute Mountain to the grasslands that feed migrating elk, this is a place worthy of Congress’ full support.”