SANTA FE, N.M. — The landscape changes fast in the Pecos Wilderness. At its ceiling, it is a treeless world, one of the most southern expanses of alpine areas in North America. The land quickly falls away from those summits and becomes foothills dominated by conifer forests, turning from spruce to ponderosa pine to mixed juniper and piñon to sagebrush and desert in a matter of miles.
The people of Picuris Pueblo called this mountainous area northeast of Santa Fe P’e-a-ku’, “a place where there is water.” It’s a source of water for Santa Fe and rivers that stream out in all directions have supported agrarian peoples for centuries.
Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson thought it was special enough to place more 170,000 acres in the strictest category of protection, a wilderness area, in 1964, when the president signed the nation’s first Wilderness Act. The Pecos Wilderness has since been expanded to include 220,000 acres.
And now a growing coalition of wilderness advocates, elected officials and a variety of organizations are calling for a new expansion. It would add 78,000 acres, an increase of about 30 percent, to the wilderness area.
The proposal already has the backing of state Reps. Nick L. Salazar, D-Ohkay Owingeh, and Richard C. Martinez, D-Española, along with State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and the Taos Pueblo War Chief. Resolutions in support of the proposal have been passed by the Santa Fe, San Miguel and Mora county commissions; the Nambé, Picuris and Pojoaque pueblos; and the city of Santa Fe.
But a vocal group of residents who live in and around the village of Peñasco, near part of the forest involved in the wilderness expansion plan, are opposed. Many spoke against the expansion at a Taos County Commission meeting in October, prompting the commission to shelve a resolution of support.
With supporters of the proposal facing gridlock in Congress, getting buy-in from a broad range of community groups – including those longtime Peñasco residents – is key to making the expansion a reality.
Wilderness areas can be created only by Congress and, once in place, they impose a permanent ban on permanent structures, any kind of development and all mechanized travel (including bicycles, one of the points of dispute in the Pecos Wilderness expansion plan).
Wilderness area designations are not intended to keep people out. Hunting, horseback riding, hiking, foraging and many other activities are allowed. Congress defined wilderness, in the 1964 act, as an area “… where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
The majority of the acreage in the current proposal would become outright wilderness area, but 30 percent would be designated “special management areas.”
These special areas, or SMAs, located as buffers around the wilderness expansion in the Santa Fe and Peñasco areas, would be governed by management plans specific to each area. This allows the Forest Service to ban industries like commercial timber harvest and mining, while still permitting some activities that are not allowed under a full wilderness designation, like mountain biking or running a chainsaw to collect firewood.
“That’s what’s so cool about this proposal, is that it’s not just wilderness,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Foundation. “The special management component that comes down closer to the communities is a document that can be written specific to the management ideals of a particular community, but it does prevent major development.”
The wilderness advocates are asking for congressional designation for the special management areas, meaning SMAs would hold almost the same legal permanence as an official wilderness area.
But the inclusion of these wilderness-light zones in the proposal has not convinced all the groups that they were meant to appease, especially the residents of Peñasco. Many showed up at the October Taos County Commission meeting with “No Wilderness” signs and again for another contentious meeting in Peñasco in November.
Peñasco pushes back
Peñasco sits in a broad, farmable valley with the distinctive long, narrow plots of land evident of a Spanish land-grant past. The Peñasco community spreads out from the village, located on the scenic High Road to Taos, into smaller and smaller loosely connected settlements, each one progressively more rural as they make inroads into the steepening forest.
Horses, cattle and dogs are an almost constant sight in the area. Bales of hay are stacked high in some fields, collections of dilapidated cars sit in others. Nearly every home has a pile of firewood stacked outside.
The area is surrounded on three sides by national forest and the existing Pecos Wilderness comes within 10 miles of the center of the town.
So why are the residents so uneasy about an expanded wilderness area? For one, it strikes a nerve for many in Peñasco to hear politicians or bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., dictate what they can or cannot do in national forest land that once was community property.
Many are heirs to area land grants handed down by the King of Spain. Around northern New Mexico, many community land grants dating from Spanish or Mexican rule were lost decades ago to what became the national forests, by what locals and many historians say were nefarious means.
“I think it’s (the wilderness expansion) crazy and I guarantee all of the people back here are against it,” said Roy Brown, a life-long resident of Peñasco.
The vocal opponents in Peñasco are not just worried about hundred-year-old wrongs. Residents are also concerned about how the management of the forest will change, especially when it comes to access for hunting and wood collecting, and how the threat of wildfire will be treated.
The wilderness advocates are attempting to ease those fears with a 14,000-acre special management area outside of Peñasco, allowing wood collecting and motorized use of the forest to continue in areas adjacent to the community. They also say there’s nothing in the proposal that would curtail hunting, already permitted in the existing Pecos Wilderness.
The proposed wilderness expansion, outside the special management areas, has already been categorized by the Forest Service as “inventoried roadless areas,” meaning there are no road routes that would be shut down if the proposal is approved.
Many people around Peñasco believe new wilderness areas will be roadblocks to preventing and stopping wildfires. “I’ve fought fires for 30 years. In the wilderness, it was always a mess,” said Gilbert Ortega, a lifetime resident of Peñasco.
Mark Allison, executive director for New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the wilderness areas proposed near Peñasco are too steep and rugged to be good candidates for thinning projects intended to prevent wildfires, where vehicles are used for access and chainsaw cutting reduces the amount of fuel in the forest.
“I just think this fire conversation is too generalized and, when we look at the areas we are proposing, it’s not in the front country and it’s not in the urban interface,” Allison said.
Wilderness area designations do not stop the Forest Service from fighting or preventing wildfires. Helicopters, chainsaws, tractors and motor vehicles are all allowed in wilderness areas to fight or prevent fires, with the permission from the regional forester. In cases of emergencies, the local forest supervisor has that authority.
The wilderness advocates, including the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the New Mexico Wildlife Foundation, have not given up on getting the support of Peñasco or the Taos County Commission. More meetings are being planned for the new year.
“I so respect the community of Peñasco, and especially those traditional land users, because their love for the country equals our love for the country, we share values,” VeneKlasen said.
But debate over imposing new restrictions on the land takes place against an imposing backdrop. Even in recent years, there’s been ongoing tension between the rural residents of northern New Mexico and the Forest Service over restrictions on grazing and whether Forest Service agents have overreached their authority in enforcing state traffic laws or criminal statutes.
Cyclists and ski area not on board
The longtime residents of Peñasco are not the only forest users withholding support for the proposed wilderness expansion. Management at the Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort and some in the mountain biking community of Santa Fe oppose the current proposal.
Like many ski resorts in the country, Sipapu already sits on forest service land that it leases from the federal government through a permit. The proposal surrounds Sipapu’s permit area with a special management area, effectively barring any future expansion of the resort. “By expanding that wilderness area, we won’t be able to do anything else, we won’t be able to grow our resort,” said Stacy Glaser, spokeswoman for Sipapu.
Glaser said the resort is also worried about the SMA getting in the way of dirt bikes and all terrain vehicles, popular modes of summer recreation at the resort, although those motorized vehicles could be allowed under the special use area’s management plan.
Mountain bikers from 40 miles south of Sipapu are also opposed. Two SMAs, totaling over 16,000 acres near Santa Fe, were added to the proposal in an effort to appease mountain bikers in the City Different, but some say they would still be barred from many existing, popular cycling trails.
“We think there are ways to protect the land from destructive uses that don’t exclude recreational users,” Tim Fowler of the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society said.
One section of the proposed wilderness area, along the south side of road to the Santa Fe Ski basin, would be less than six miles away from the downtown Plaza.
Coalition important for approval
At the end of the day, Congress has the authority to decide on the expansion proposal. Wilderness and public lands advocates have succeeded there previously when broad coalitions of support have come together. And Taos County has epitomized how that broad coalition approach works.
In 2013, President Barack Obama created the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument after a coalition of businesses, chambers of commerce, politicians and a long list of community organizations supported the plan. A similar coalition was able to get congressional support for the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Area in 2014.
“That’s one of those things that’s so special of Taos County, it’s been at the epicenter of these non-traditional alliances,” said the Wilderness Alliance’s Allison.
New Mexico’s congressional delegation is waiting to see what kind support comes together over wilderness expansion.
U.S. Rep. Ben Luján, who represents the northern half of New Mexico, said in an emailed statement: “As the community discusses the future of this important area, any plan must be the result of consensus and input from all stakeholders and those with deep connections to this land.”
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said he looked forward to working with all of stakeholders and U.S. Sen Tom Udall said any expansion of the Pecos Wilderness would need widespread community support. “The current proposal is still just a proposal, and I urge all of the stakeholders to continue talking and working to understand each other,” Udall said.
One supporter of the wilderness plan represents the group with arguably the oldest claim on the land – Picuris Pueblo, just up the road from Peñasco.
Picuris Gov. Gary Pyne wrote in a letter to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall: “This land is precious to the people of Picuris Pueblo. By adding this area to the Pecos Wilderness, it will protect the Pueblo’s resources, preserve our watershed, our clean water, our unique landscape and will enhance our economy.”