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Friday, February 19, 2010

Wilderness Preservation: A Good Bet for New Mexico's Future, by Stephen Jones

This is a post by contributing writer, Stephen Jones, who is a progressive political activist and a resident of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

On President’s Day, hundreds showed up at a field hearing of the United States Senate held at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces to urge passage of S.1689, the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act, sponsored by Senators Bingaman and Udall. The bill has been pending for years, under previous forms, while proponents and opponents wrangled over the future of the Organ Mountains just east of the Mesilla Valley in southern New Mexico. While the vast majority of residents who live in the area support the bill, citing natural preservation and the potential for local economic development, critics on the other side warned that wilderness designation would shut off access, lead to economic stagnation and create a harbor for crime. These critics of wilderness are ill-informed. Natural preservation is, and has proven to be, a vital engine for long-term, sustainable, economic development.

It isn’t hard to see how New Mexico’s wild areas attract financial rewards. Pick up any post card at the El Paso International Airport and you will find that it either touts that city’s college football facilities, or refer to the largest city in West Texas as the “Gateway to Juarez.” Having little else to offer potential tourist dollars to the “Sun City,” El Paso’s official tourist publications brag about the natural attractions of southern New Mexico, and El Paso’s proximity to those attractions, or rather our natural attractions, as a major reason to visit or relocate businesses to their city.

In a study published by Paul A Lorah, Associate Professor of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, on the relative economic benefit to Western communities of national wilderness designation, Lorah found that of the 113 western counties studied, those adjoining wilderness areas far outpaced those that did not have access to wilderness in every economic category.

Silver City vs. Alamogordo and Hobbs
We need not look to Minnesota to test Dr. Lorah’s hypothesis. We can find the same result in our own back-yard. Even a cursory look at economic figures supplied by the U.S. Census shows us that New Mexico communities adjoining wilderness areas are doing better than those that are further away. Silver City in southwestern New Mexico has been outpacing Hobbs and Alamogordo, New Mexico in every economic category for decades. Silver City, unlike Hobbs and Alamogordo, sits on the rim of the two designated wilderness areas of the Gila National Forest. The presence of the Gila has proven to be an economic engine for Silver City, and will continue to be.

On the other hand, the largest employers in Hobbs and Alamogordo are extractive industries; namely, oil and gas. Besides oil and gas, Alamogordo enjoys the presence of permanent military facilities. This alone should have skewed Alamogordo’s economic statistics to look better than Silver City’s, but it doesn’t. Furthermore, Hobbs and Alamogordo also are closer to major airports than Silver City; Midland, Texas in the case of Hobbs, El Paso in the case of Alamogordo. Both enjoy extensive highway and freight rail access. Gas, oil and a permanent military infrastructure ought to make Hobbs and Alamogordo wealthier communities than the much smaller and remote Silver City, yet they don’t.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable economic advantages of Alamogordo and Hobbs, Silver City outpaces both of the southeastern New Mexico cities in every single economic category. Extractive industries, like mining, once the “bread and butter” industry of the Silver City community, certainly does not account for that community’s growth. In fact the official Village web site says employment in these industries is shrinking, not growing. Census figures place the exact number of Silver City residents working in mining at only 354, a mere 2% of the workforce.

While Silver City’s housing median values are $141,876, up from $83,100 in 2000, in Alamogordo median housing value is far behind at $115,418 and in Hobbs the value is $82,435, half the New Mexico average.

In the current economic downturn, Silver City has a 6.7% unemployment rate, hardly a number to cheer about, but far less devastating than that of Alamogordo at 7.1%, or of Hobbs which stands at a near-depression level of 10.4%, nearly twice the national average.

The only possible explanation for Silver City’s faster growth in income, housing values, and relative strength in retaining jobs over Alamogordo and Hobbs, considering the size and relative advantages of the latter two cities in infrastructure and transportation, is Silver City’s close proximity to wilderness, and the dollars that that wilderness attracts into Silver City.

As for the other two cities, even a cursory glance at the economic trends facing their populations, most particularly in the case of Hobbs, should tell us that they need to look at diversifying their economies beyond oil and gas. Far from being a boon to future business growth and resident prosperity, oil and gas are an economic dead end. Those who tell us wilderness and natural preservation is bad for business and a jobs-killer are just plain wrong.

Just the Facts
Over-development of our natural areas isn’t just bad economics, it also presents a physical danger to existing communities. Construction up to the mountainsides in El Paso helped cause devastating flooding elsewhere in that city two years ago. After building developers filled in natural arroyos, water off the Franklin Mountains used mountainside streets as raceways and overwhelmed storm sewers, resulting in millions of dollars of water destruction to low lying areas un-equipped to handle the torrent further down in the City.

Despite all this evidence, opponents to natural preservation insist that conservation is a bad idea. Resorting to their usual alarmist tactics of spouting nonsense and hyperbole, Tea Party activists tell us that wilderness makes our communities less safe. According to their twisted logic, it will create a haven for burglars and “illegals,” while the rest of us, they say, will have to crawl through razor wire to access their hiding places.

Border interdiction isn’t an issue in the current and proposed wilderness areas in New Mexico now, and it won’t be in the future. Furthermore, as far as issues of security are concerned, Silver City is, by far, the safer place to be. According to FBI statistics, in every crime category from burglary and assault to rape and murder, Alamogordo and Hobbs are nearly twice as dangerous.

The arguments put forward by opponents of national wilderness designation and preservation of natural environments just simply don’t hold water. The only losers, if there are any, are private ranchers who lose government-subsidized grazing rights on public lands once they have become designated wilderness areas, and frankly, there is more enough open land in New Mexico to keep these ranchers’ livestock happy for many decades to come without forcing herds of cattle up wild mountain slopes or driving them through remote arroyos in search of scrub grass.

Opponents also tell us that proposed wilderness areas around Las Cruces “don’t meet the criteria” for wild lands. Either, they say, the wilderness tracts are “too small” or aren’t really wild, because they have been visited by prospectors for the past century. At 259,000 square acres, the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks wilderness more than tops the 5,000 acre guideline outlined by the U.S. Government. The Burden Falls Wilderness in the Shawnee National Forest is a mere 3,600 acres and, prior to restoration, saw a century of organized farming. The Ozark Mountain wilderness areas in Arkansas are dotted with abandoned homesteads, and the largest of the eight units is 22,000 acres, the smallest only 2,200 acres. Few of our national designated wildernesses even come close to 259,000 acres.

Above all, in the case of the Organ Mountains wilderness, it is something that the vast majority of Dona Ana County residents want. Preserving the natural areas in and around the Las Cruces area is a goal many in the area have been working for years. All of the competing interests have come to the table and reached consensus. The bill to make those years of work and compromise a reality is on the table in the U.S. Congress.

It’s time for Congress to pass it.

To read more posts by Stephen Jones, visit our archive.

February 19, 2010 at 09:34 AM in Border Issues, By Stephen Jones, Contributing Writer, Economy, Populism, Environment, Land Issues, Las Cruces, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Sen. Tom Udall, Sprawl Development | Permalink


"The only losers, if there are any, are private ranchers who lose government-subsidized grazing rights on public lands once they have become designated wilderness areas"

Actually, I think grazing is continued in wilderness areas, and may even be expanded.

Posted by: Michelle Meaders | Feb 19, 2010 1:28:59 PM

Here's what the bill says about grazing(at http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s111-1689):

"(C) GRAZING- The Secretary shall permit grazing within the Conservation Areas, where established before the date of enactment of this Act--

(i) subject to all applicable laws (including regulations) and Executive orders; and

(ii) consistent with the purposes described in subsection (b). [Purposes]"

Posted by: Michelle Meaders | Feb 19, 2010 1:41:32 PM

It is my understanding, grazing is permitted in National Conservation Areas (NCA) and in Wilderness Areas only until existing permits expire. The Dona Ana - Desert Peaks Wilderness Act includes 259,000 acres of wilderness and 100,840 acres of National Conservation Areas, a total of 359,850 acres.

Posted by: Stephen Jones | Feb 19, 2010 3:36:09 PM

So far I've found the text of the bill posted on numerous sites, but I haven't yet been able to find maps of the actual proposed wilderness areas. Anyone out there who can point me in the right direction?

As far as grazing--this is the single biggest threat to all of these areas except the Organ Mountains proper (where the real threat is possible military use by Fort Bliss, which is beyond the scope of the bill). It is not clear how wilderness designation will affect grazing activities; the wording of the bill doesn't say anything coherent in either direction on this matter. I do know, however, that other wilderness areas are grazed, and sometimes severely overgrazed. To me, this is the single biggest issue here; grazing is -the- threat. Designating wilderness while leaving the single biggest threat to the proposed wildernesses unaddressed provides the illusion of protection only. If nothing else, one would hope that restrictions on motorized vehicles in wilderness would apply to ranchers as well, but I am not optimistic on this point.

Posted by: Patrick Alexander | Feb 26, 2010 7:33:53 PM

Ah, I found the maps on Bingaman's Senate website. He also includes a factsheet that includes the following:

"There shall be no curtailments of grazing in wilderness areas simply because an area is, or has been designated as wilderness, nor should wilderness designations be used an excuse by administrators to slowly "phase out" grazing. Any adjustments in the numbers of livestock permitted to graze in wilderness areas should be made as a result of revisions in the normal grazing and land management planning and policy setting process, giving consideration to legal mandates, range condition, and the protection of the range resource from deterioration."


"The maintenance of supporting facilities, existing in an area prior to its classification as wilderness (including fences, line cabins, water wells and lines, stock tanks, etc.), is permissible in wilderness. Where practical alternatives do not exist, maintenance or other activities may be accomplished through the occasional use of motorized equipment. This may include, for example, the use of backhoes to maintain stock ponds, pickup trucks for major fence repairs, or specialized equipment to repair stock watering facilities."

In other words: grazing will not be decreased, and ranchers will be exempted from any motorized vehicle restrictions. Given that these proposed wilderness/national conservation areas include some of the most severely degraded and overgrazed land in the state (especially around the Sierra de las Uvas), this amounts to an admission that protection for these wildernesses & NCAs is neither stated nor implied.

Posted by: Patrick Alexander | Feb 26, 2010 7:46:59 PM

The people who think this area needs a wilderness designation have never even left the city. There are A LOT of Americans that enjoy the outdoors and outdoor activities and also believe in preservation. We ALL pay for the government lands and access restriction is not what many of us want. For many years I, as well as many others, have been respectfully utilizing the areas that Senators Bingaman and Udall are trying restrict access to. The majority of the trails that are used by the off road/ranching community are in the bottom of the natural arroyos and any trace of such activities are washed away with each rain. This fact also make these off road/ranching trails visually blend into the landscape. The large majority of the off road/ranching community work hard to clean and keep clean the areas we utilize. Forgive the adage but you cant let a few bad apples spoil the batch. Additionally, the proposed wilderness areas are seen by many as a preeminent four wheel drive area in the nation and if you have ever seen all the four wheel drive vehicles in town when there are four wheel drive events, you can not deny the economic benefit such events bring to our wonderful city. Access restriction is not the answer.

Posted by: Jacob Baker | Mar 10, 2010 10:32:28 PM