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LAS CRUCES — Opinions were split among about 600 people who showed up for a three-hour congressional field hearing to discuss proposed federal wilderness areas for southern New Mexico.
Las Cruces resident Robert Macklin, a retired Army officer and avid hiker, attended to express his opposition.
“I don’t want to see development in the Organ Mountains,” he said.
The event was hosted by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both D-N.M., who last year introduced legislation that would create 259,000 acres of wilderness in Dona Ana County along with 100,850 acres of national conservation area.
Supporters, many rallied by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, say the legislation is needed to give the highest level of protection to scenic areas.
Opponents, some of them wearing Las Cruces TEA Party shirts, were concerned it would curtail access to the lands and hinder ranchers’ livelihoods.
Bingaman said during an opening statement that there are many views about land use designations but, “it is my sense that there is broad community support in Dona Ana County to protect the important public lands in the state.”
Bingaman added there’s room for changes to the legislation, the purpose of Monday’s hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Some TEA Party members demonstrated outside, holding signs opposing the bill. Organizer Jerry Clark said the group doesn’t want the wilderness areas for several reasons, including concerns about border security.
Clark said the proposed wilderness areas “have pipelines, power lines and roads in them, so they’re not really wilderness as defined in the national wilderness act.” He said development can be limited in the Organ Mountains but not to the extent of designating a national conservation area or wilderness.
Panelist John Muñoz of the Hispano Chamber of Commerce de Las Cruces said the bill would improve the economy.
“Employers are looking for high quality of life areas for their employees,” he said.
Gary Esslinger, manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, said he’s concerned the bill could limit future flood control infrastructure. He asked that wilderness legislation not be imposed until flood control issues can be addressed.
Though grazing is authorized to continue if wilderness status is granted, panelist Tom Cooper cited concerns from the ranching community. He said none of the grazing permits that first existed when the Gila Wilderness was created have lasted.
Supporters have said they’ve taken steps to remove ranchers’ watering tanks and other infrastructure from the proposal.
City Councilor Nathan Small, a member of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said he feels accommodations have been made for groups that initially opposed the wilderness bill. He described the proposal as “incredibly balanced.”