N.M. Federal Lands News

Bingaman Is After Us Again.

The Bingaman wilderness mess is back. Mike has already written about his bill for northern New Mexico, so let’s look at what he has planned for the southern part of the state.

On May 19 Senators Bingaman and Udall introduced S. 1024, the Organ Mountains – Doña Ana County Conservation and Protection Act. This is basically the same bill from the last session of Congress. According to a Bingaman press release it would designate 241,000 acres as wilderness and place 100,000 acres in a National Conservation Area.

There is one very noticeable change from last year’s bill. Notice the title. The word Wilderness is nowhere to be found. If Wilderness is so wildly popular with the public, why did the Senators remove the word from the title?

Since it is the same bill, it has the same old problem areas, which for some reason Bingaman refuses to fix. The four areas of primary concern are 1) Grazing 2) Flood Control 3) Public Access and 4) Border Security.

I’ll address the grazing issues in my next column. For now the hot-button issue is Border Security and law enforcement. It’s very apparent that Senator Bingaman realizes the Border Security issue is an impediment to his passing the bill. For instance, take a look at the joint press release issued by the Senators. Border Security is in the title, the release contains 662 words, and 371 of those words are about Border Security.

Bingaman has a reason to be worried about opposition to his legislation. Recall that Wilderness prohibits the use of motorized vehicles or mechanical equipment, thus prohibiting mobile and fixed surveillance systems and communication centers. In addition, this means the Border Patrol is relegated to patrolling these areas on foot or horseback. That puts these officers at a distinct disadvantage against the drug cartels, who don’t feel compelled to follow Wilderness rules.

In response to criticism from law enforcement and civic groups such as the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, Bingaman carved out a five-mile area from the border where the Border Patrol has unencumbered access. Five miles? A New Mexico citizen was recently murdered 10 miles from the border. Rancher Rob Krentz was murdered 20 miles from the border and a deputy sheriff in Arizona was wounded after encountering illegals 70 miles from the border. And Bingaman thinks five miles fixes everything!

Let’s take a look at what Bingaman’s counterparts in Arizona are doing. Senators McCain and Kyle have introduced

S. 803, the Border Security Enforcement Act of 2011. A provision of that bill allows the Border Patrol to have unencumbered access to all federal lands, including components of the National Wilderness Preservation System, within 150 miles of the border with Mexico. Arizona Congressman Ben Quayle has introduced H.R. 1922 which also grants the Border Patrol unencumbered access to all federal land for 150 miles. Representative Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has cosponsored the Quayle bill stating, “How can anyone take seriously the Obama Administration’s claim that it is intent on securing our borders when the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service hinder the Border Patrol’s access to some 40 percent of the Southwest Border? We cannot possibly succeed in securing our borders against illegal immigrants, including potential terrorists, unless our front-line Border Patrol agents can do their jobs anywhere along the border.”

Arizona says 150 miles, Bingaman says five miles. Why such a difference? Because Arizona has been living with the consequences of having Wilderness on the border, the exact same situation which Bingaman is trying to create for New Mexico! Whether you call it Bingaman’s Bandito Boulevard or Bingaman’s Aboveground Railroad, it is bad legislation for New Mexico and for our nation.

Wild Lands, Wilderness and the Bingaman Bill

On December 22, 2010 Secretary Salazar issued Secretarial Order 3310 which directed BLM to inventory lands with wilderness characteristics and designate them as “Wild Lands”.

On June 1, 2011 Secretary Salazar issued a Memorandum to BLM stating “the BLM will not designate any lands as ‘Wild Lands’.” This was after Congress had defunded the program for this fiscal year and the states of Utah, Wyoming and Alaska had filed suit against the order.

In the Memorandum Salazar also stated: Based on my conversations with members of Congress, there is broad interest in managing our public lands in a sensible manner that takes into account such lands’ wilderness qualities. There continues to be broad support for providing permanent protection for some of those lands under the Wilderness Act. Given our shared interests in managing the public lands for the benefit of our communities and for future generations, the Department of the Interior will be soliciting input from members of Congress, state and local officials, tribes, and Federal land managers to identify BLM lands that may be appropriate candidates for Congressional protection under the Wilderness Act. I am directing the Deputy Secretary to work with the BLM to deliver a report to me and to the Congress regarding those areas.

Read broadly this means all BLM lands in New Mexico with “wilderness qualities” will be considered in compiling the report. On June 10 Salazar sent a letter to Congress stating, “the Department of the Interior will, by October 15, 2011, submit to Congress a list of “crown jewel” areas that we believe are ready for immediate Wilderness designation by Congress.” It should be noted that Salazar sent the letter after being criticized by former Secretary Babbitt and that he announced this policy at a Wilderness Society meeting where Babbitt was receiving an award. At any rate, all users of federal lands should stay alert as we find out exactly how this report will be put together.

It remains to be seen how this process may or may not affect S. 1024.

Bingaman’s Wilderness bill last year was made part of an Omnibus Public Lands Bill which died as Congress adjourned. I believe that approach will be taken again. Bingaman’s bill is controversial enough that it would not pass as a stand-alone bill. Furthermore, Bingaman’s committee has been holding perfunctory hearings, with only Obama administration officials allowed to testify, on bills that could be combined into a new Omnibus package. As of this writing, no hearing has been held on S. 1024.

This may all boil down to whether the Republicans in the House will agree to an Omnibus bill, and if so would they agree to include a provision which creates more Wilderness on the border. My sources tell me no, they would never agree to such a provision. Others point out, however, that Bingaman is retiring, and funny things happen when a Senator wants something for his “legacy”. Time will tell.

Speaking of time, let’s gaze into the future. It’s 2012 and a Presidential election year. President Obama and Bingaman have been unsuccessful in getting an Omnibus bill through the Congress. The enviros are howling that Obama has been woefully inadequate in fulfilling their federal lands agenda. What to do? Now flashback to September of 1996 and another Presidential election. Bill Clinton held a press conference and designated 1.9 million acres of Utah as a National Monument. Focus again on 2012. Can you visualize an Obama press conference with Bingaman by his side, and the designation of Otero Mesa or the Organ Mountains as a National Monument? Come to think of it, Bruce Babbitt was Clinton’s Secretary of Interior and didn’t he just receive an award from the Wilderness Society? Sometimes all this gazing isn’t good for the soul.

Until next time, be a nuisance to the devil and don’t forget to check that cinch.

Frank DuBois was the NM Secretary of Agriculture from 1988 to 2003, is the author of a blog: The Westerner (www.thewesterner.blogspot.com) and is the founder of The DuBois Rodeo Scholarship ).