Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico recalled a daylong horseback ride into the Sabinoso Wilderness last year with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that ultimately got Zinke to retreat from his marching orders to shrink national wilderness and monument acreage.
In fact, after the horseback tour, Zinke approved the donation of an additional 4,100 acres into the wilderness area, which created the public access acreage necessary to make the Sabinoso available for outdoor recreation.
Up until then, the pristine Sabinoso was the only legally inaccessible wilderness area in the nation, being surrounded by private land and with no legal road or trail to access it.
On Tuesday, representatives of organizations supporting conservation efforts gathered at Petroglyph National Monument Visitor Center to thank Udall and Heinrich for their leadership in Washington, D.C., on conservation issues. In addition to announcing major gains in improving access to public lands in New Mexico, including the Sabinoso Wilderness, the two senators and others spoke of the importance of reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is expected to expire at the end of September. The end goal, they said, is to get Congress to fully fund the LWCF in perpetuity.
The LWCF “is one of the oldest and most successful conservation programs in the country,” said Andrew Black, director of community relations for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. It is funded by offshore oil and gas royalties that have brought more than $312 million to New Mexico. Beneficiaries have included Bandelier National Monument, Petroglyph National Monument, the Valles Caldera, Tent Rocks and all five of New Mexico’s national forests. In addition, Black said, more than 1,000 LWCF grants have been matched with state and local funds to construct and enhance local parks, playgrounds, trails, ball fields and pools in every county in the state.
“New Mexico is crucially located in the Congress on the committees to protect wilderness, parks and monuments,” said Udall, who noted that he sits on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, and Heinrich sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Udall said that he and Heinrich are “working on a strong bipartisan effort” to make sure that the LWCF gets at least $425 million in funding. That compares with $1 billion a year that was originally sought. Still, he said, “in Congress, the House and the Senate, we have very strong bipartisan support on conservation.”
Heinrich said that when “everybody is pulling in the same direction and you have a really engaged local group of advocates and a delegation that is close in touch with them, even in these tough times you can get things done, or at least team up so when the moment comes and you have a little bit better political situation, you can get them over the finish line.”