New Mexico Senators Bingaman and Udall introduced S.1689, the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act, in part on the basis of economic growth for southern New Mexico. Senator Bingaman is quoted in a Hispano Chamber of Commerce de Las Cruces ad campaign that was funded by sources outside the local community that “(public lands) . . . provide significant economic benefit and help attract good companies and jobs to our state.”
It is obvious the senators have relied on models of economic forecasting that require a defined set of circumstances, along with a certain class of higher income residents in order to predict that outcome. If that wasn’t the case, they would be compelled to remind their constituency that pure wilderness economics have combined to make the most wilderness dependent county in the nation, New Mexico’s Catron County, arguably one of the top five most poverty stricken counties in the United States.
This Dona Ana County debate has turned out to be a watershed event. It became a quest for the newly elevated senior senator from New Mexico to create a legacy without the moderating influence and wisdom of now retired New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. When Mr. Domenici was approached by the EarthFirst! influenced New Mexico Wilderness Alliance to introduce legislation, he demanded that such legislation have community support. When no consensus could be reached the legislation was stalled, and, unfortunately, Mr. Domenici retired. The door was then opened for Senator Bingaman to elevate his own agenda. He not only bought the entire package of ideas for wilderness, he expanded the footprint of the plan to extend outside of Wilderness Study Areas with National Conservation Areas and a heretofore undisclosed Limited Access Area along with at least one withdrawal adjacent to the Texas border.
For the record, business leadership in the community support Mr. Bingaman’s bill to the tune of some 220 coalition members while the larger business community’s coalition against the effort number over 800. From Mr. Domenici’s demand that the community find consensus, any objective explanation of why the entire package was expanded without any discussion remains shrouded with skepticism and mistrust. It certainly wasn’t based on community support. The outcome begs for an assessment of who is really behind wilderness and, why is there such a push to expand wilderness designations.
The United States owns about 29% of the land within its territorial boundaries. A total of 23% of that total land is now in wilderness status. That total alone constitutes seven percent of the land mass within the boundaries of the United States.It must be acknowledged that there is a growing awareness of the once underground environmental Rewilding Project that seeks to create wildlife corridors up and down the Cordilleran spine, but a more objective assessment of the current set of circumstances should first be presented by a recapitulation of what is being published in the literature. Two definitive issues stand out. The first is why additional wilderness is being sought and the second is who has actually been the beneficiary of wilderness designations (aside from grants and trust fund support extended to wilderness creation businesses and or campaign funds generated for cooperating legislators).
It is interesting to read Aldo Leopold, the original Father of Game Management, and, more recently, the unofficially appointed Father of the American Wilderness Movement from the perspective of an environmentalist versus “a steward too poor to pay for his sport”. Leopold suggested that up to 10% of lands be set aside by the insightful steward for the purpose of land withdrawal ethics, or, as we know it today, wilderness. When the impact of that statement is contemplated, the Leopold benchmark is probably supported by more stewards than anybody would guess. For example, even in California’s most intensively cultivated farm land that figure consistently runs six to ten percent of lands in “out ground”. That figure is made even more meaningful because that habitat is protected through access limitations.
Private lands ranchers can argue that they consistently expand that mark by their rotation strategies. They are doing it in the exact character of stewardship that Leopold described in his writings. They are doing it because of their insight into the rhythms and the cycles they have become so much a part of in their tenure on the land.
What about the federal government? The United States owns about 29% of the land within its territorial boundaries. A total of 23% of that total land is now in wilderness status. That total alone constitutes seven percent of the land mass within the boundaries of the United States. When the realization that the majority of lands owned by the United States exist west of the 100th Meridian, the story starts to emerge that the benchmark is already surpassed, and, in places in the West, it has no resemblance to the ethical suggestion made by Leopold.
When the chief architect of the Wilderness Act, Howard Zahniser, testified to the Senate in 1961, he promised that the “outside maximum” expansion of the wilderness system would never exceed 50 million acres. Today, that number stands at 152.8 million acres of designated wilderness and lands being protected for future wilderness consideration. That expansion is not simply a function of the public’s demand to establish more wildernesses. It is coming from the unseen wilderness management policies of the federal land agencies and their counterparts in universities.
Following the hoopla of the Wilderness Act passage in 1964 and extending to 1994, wilderness visitation expanded 86%. With that expansion and the concern that the wilderness experience itself was starting to harm the wilderness areas, numerous regulations were imposed including limits on visitation.
Permitted entry was started, and history will show that that system of management was a primary cause of impact proliferation and crowding in theretofore lightly used areas. Displaced visitors were redirected to more vulnerable areas and dissatisfaction among visitors and wilderness advocates alike increased.
By 1974, the concept of “recreational carrying capacity” had been advanced. Wilderness scholars were worried about their own assessment of a wilderness experience and started a process to attempt to quantify limits. It was suggested that it wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when” and “how much” limits must be placed on visitor use of wilderness. Additionally, if wilderness use was going to parallel previous utility measures, the only alternative was and is to add more wildernesses to the system. That would be the only way that wildness, “the relative lack of intentional human manipulation” and naturalness, “the relative lack of human influence” could be balanced. The first theorem of modern wilderness science, expansionism, was established. Expansion remains the byword of that position today.
When the chief architect of the Wilderness Act, Howard Zahniser, testified to the Senate in 1961, he promised that the “outside maximum” expansion of the wilderness system would never exceed 50 million acres. Today, that number stands at 152.8 million acres of designated wilderness and lands being protected for future wilderness consideration.So, if expansion is the salvation of the wilderness experience, who is the beneficiary? For that answer, facts and statistics must be reviewed. Mr. Bingaman wrote that his wilderness legislation “offers special opportunities for families to spend quality time together as they hunt, hike, ride horses and relax.” In reviewing the actual wilderness use statistics, 63.4% of all wilderness visits were made by men. In fact, that statistic remains consistent through time. Wilderness is not a family use destination. It is the domain of the male.
If it is a man’s world, what men use it? Statistics suggest that Hispanic and Latinos as a whole hover around the three percent use mark, Black Americans at consistently less than one percent, and all other categories except the dominant use category run about three percent. It is the one dominant use group, the group made up of white Americans that truly use wilderness. About 96% of all wilderness visitations are made by white Americans and males can be expected to spend about 42% more days per year visiting wilderness areas than females. The second fact of American wilderness use can now be established. Wilderness is the domain of white American men.
And who are those white men? Fully 66% of them have incomes of $75,000 or more per year and nearly 11% of them have incomes of $150,000 or more. By all measures those incomes reach into the affluent levels of society. So, adding to the fact that wilderness is the domain of men, those men are also affluent, white, and more than half of them are older than 40 years of age. Affluent, white men over the age of 40 . . . hardly fits the profile of the typical cross section of Dona Ana County residents does it?
From a practical matter there is logic in this finding. It is only an affluent person who can afford to take the time, afford the equipment, or pay the price of an outfitter to take an extended trip into the wilderness. It isn’t a family on an afternoon jaunt after church, and it isn’t the typical resident of Dona Ana County, so using the patronizing play on words that S.1689 is a benefit for all and will be for years to come is disingenuous. Those words are fundamentally dishonest and misleading.
This debate and the growing awareness of the agenda of the environmental movement will not stop with the passage or the extension of any pending status of S.1689. What will come out of this debate, however, should make Dona Ana County residents more cognizant of the external influences that have made this debate so divisive. Both of the New Mexico senators need to explain their actions and the aggressive intent to expand the scope of this legislation from its original draft. Where Mr. Bingaman could have found community unity, he elected to forgo it with a much more ambitious wilderness plan. Constituents are left wondering why he made that choice. Was it driven by the prevailing environmental agenda that he chose to support or was it driven by thinking S.1689 would secure a personal legacy?
It had to be one or the other because it wasn’t driven by the single factor upon which the community was in full agreement. The original premise of the debate . . . the protection of the Organ Mountains . . . is literally lost out there in the wilderness. That issue is the political high ground of this debate, and that is where an insightful leader would have concentrated. Perhaps that is the real story that has emerged.
In the meantime, the long term usage of the pending wilderness as set forth in S.1689 has been forecasted from data and statistics claimed and provided by those who have pushed the proposal. Maybe Bend, Oregon and Cedar City, Utah can make wilderness a component of economic well being of the community, but our New Mexico examples where communities must depend solely on wilderness for their economic well-being are utter failures. It won’t be because of wilderness that Las Cruces will grow and prosper. That is as much a myth as the representation of who will use the wilderness areas. The real data is contrary to the representations of the proponents, and Dona Ana residents should be aware that hidden little secret exists out there in the wilderness world.
This legislation isn’t for the common citizen. It is for someone and something else.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. He has long been a student of Aldo Leopold, but has a far different interpretation of his concepts than the prevailing environmental representations. His belief in Leopold’s stance on stewardship comes from the fact that Leopold was first and last a farmer. It would have been with that personal commitment to conservation that Leopold would have understood what he wrote when he described the true stewards of the land. Environmentalists today stand in juxtaposition to that understanding of stewardship. Many will already argue that the misinformed have become the misdirected.