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Conservationist Aldo Leopold started movement in New Mexico

Members of Congress occasionally will decide that an area of land in the United States is too pristine to let modern-society trappings like development or even cars breach its boundaries.

The 1964 Wilderness Act was enacted “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

The movement that culminated in the signing of that law started decades earlier here in New Mexico.

“Aldo (Leopold) saw the Forest Service’s mandate was to cut trees,” says Nathan Newcomer, the director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “That’s all they were doing, was producing timber. … He said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this, or there’ll be nothing left.’ ”

In 1924, conservationist godfather Leopold proposed the Gila Wilderness Area in southern New Mexico within the Gila National Forest. It became the first protected wilderness area in the United States, and perhaps the world.

Leopold had grown up in Burlington, Iowa, along the Mississippi River, where he hunted and fished with his family. As a boy he would sketch and write notes about animals and plant life around him, a practice he continued into his adult life. Leopold graduated from Yale with a master’s degree in forestry, got a job with the U.S. Forest Service when it was still a relatively new outfit, and was assigned first to Arizona and then to supervise the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico.

“When he went to Arizona, he was one of the first professional foresters out there,” says Susan Flader, a member of the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s board of directors and editor of the book “The River of the Mother of God,” a collection of Leopold’s essays. “Arizona and New Mexico were still territories.”

Leopold, who served two years as secretary of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, was in charge of 20 million acres of forest land in the Southwest, which he periodically inspected on horseback.

After familiarizing himself with the Gila, he lobbied his bosses in Washington, D.C., and got more than 750,000 acres set aside as designated wilderness.

“I think the concept of wilderness owes an awful lot to Aldo Leopold,” Flader says.

New Mexico currently is home to 25 protected wilderness areas, including those in or around Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the Sandia Mountains and Bandelier National Monument.

Formal wilderness in New Mexico takes up roughly 1.6 million acres, about 2 percent of the fifth-largest state in America. Environmentalists in the state are working to increase that total.

Newcomer notes that New Mexico lags behind other western states: Arizona is 6.2 percent wilderness and California 14 percent.

“We have great champions here,” Newcomer says, alluding to New Mexico congressmen like Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, who in 2009 co-sponsored a now-stalled bill to protect roughly 300,000 acres of northern New Mexico. Their names are also atop a bill that would set aside 241,000 acres around the Organ Mountains, which is also awaiting action.

And Udall was the main force behind declaring 16,000 acres east of Las Vegas, N.M., as the Sabinoso Wilderness, the state’s newest wilderness area.

The process of protecting wilderness has changed since the 1920s. Whereas the initial protection for the Gila was an administrative designation, preserving lands is now national law.

The Wilderness Act was officially signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Standing behind Johnson when he signd the bill was Clinton P. Anderson — a longtime New Mexico senator who made conservation a centerpiece of his public career and was the act’s lead sponsor.