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Bill to help create new NM wilderness areas

The massive Natural Resources Management Act approved overwhelmingly by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday contains a public lands package that would create a dozen new wilderness areas in New Mexico, the most in almost 30 years.

Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both D-N.M., said the package includes bills to establish such areas in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

“(These) are two of New Mexico’s most special places – and these undisturbed areas within them deserve the special protections that wilderness designation confers,” Udall said in a statement.

The Rio Grande Gorge, as seen here at dusk in 2013, is the centerpiece of the newly designated Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

“This legislation will provide permanent protection to some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes in Doña Ana County and iconic rugged areas of Taos, all while preserving traditional practices, and keeping the land accessible for hunting, fishing and recreation,” he said.

Heinrich said in a statement: “By passing these wilderness designations, we are completing the communities’ vision for these treasured places and assuring permanent protection for the wildest, most rugged places within both monuments. I have no doubt that future generations will be grateful for all we have done to protect these world-class destinations.”

Specifically, the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act would establish 10 permanent wilderness areas within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, according to a news release.

Udall said a coalition of leaders, including military veterans, Native Americans, sportsmen, business owners, faith leaders, conservationists, local elected officials and others, came up with the proposal over a decade “to protect wilderness in Doña Ana and Luna counties.”

A bighorn sheep near the edge of the Rio Grande Canyon in the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, near Pilar. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Cerros del Norte Conservation Act would create two wilderness areas within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument: the Cerro del Yuta (Ute Mountain) and Rio San Antonio.

Ute Mountain is a 10,000-foot-high volcanic dome that overlooks the Taos Gorge, and the Rio San Antonio runs below a plateau, creating a unique riparian area and recreational opportunities, Udall said.

“The area is one of the most stunning and ecologically significant in the state, and a destination for tourists and outdoor enthusiasts,” he said.

Overall, the Natural Resources Management Act – permanently authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund – consists of more than 100 land and water conservation bills designed to expand the nation’s public lands and natural resources.

It passed the Senate 92-8. To become law, the bill must be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and signed into law by the president.

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