Norma McCallan, Chapter Vice Chair
The 223,637 acres of the Pecos Wilderness, which straddles the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, have long been a key destination for locals and visitors alike, to hike, backpack, birdwatch, climb, fish, ride horses, take photos, hunt, or just relax and enjoy its peace and solitude.
The word “Pecos” means place where there is water. Because of its many high mountains, more than 15 lakes, and broad meadows, it has some of the lushest and greenest landscapes in our arid state. It is the headwaters for the Pecos and Mora Rivers and supplies drinking water to the cities of Santa Fe and Las Vegas as well as critical irrigation water to the many acequias used by the surrounding communities and ranchers.
Fishermen love its clear streams nourishing rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout. If you drive up the road beyond the village of Pecos you will be hard-pressed to find a single parking space along the miles of pickup trucks and campers lining the banks of the Pecos River. With our current years of drought and rising temperatures, increased demand for water, with a decreasing supply, those mountain lakes and bubbling creeks will become even more important to our environment as a large, still quite healthy ecosystem, our economy, and the culture of the five counties surrounding it. And more critical for the prolific wildlife population which the Wilderness supports — including bear, elk, deer, turkey, and a large herd of bighorn sheep. Happily, there are still some quite pristine areas surrounding some of the Wilderness — areas in both the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests designated as “roadless areas” many yeas ago. But they are likely to succumb sooner or later to the pressures of encroaching development, the increasing spread of off-road vehicles with their subsequent erosion problems, and perhaps mining or oil and gas exploration.
But the 2015 New Mexico legislative session saw the introduction of yet another measure seeking to prohibit any further designation of Wilderness there — Senate Memorial 40, introduced by former Sen. Phil Griego, called on the U.S. Congress to refrain from designating additional wilderness or special management areas adjoining the existing Pecos Wilderness. The bill claims that the prohibitions of such designation would prevent fire suppression, proper livestock management, search and rescue operations, forest thinning and handicapped access. However, these claims are very misleading.
While the Forest Service aims to permit lightning-caused fires to play a natural ecological role and reduce the risks of wildfire both within and outside the wilderness, the Wilderness Act also provides that “measures may be taken as may be necessary in the control of fire.” Moreover, search-and-rescue operations do occur in Wilderness; grazing would not be curtailed simply because of a Wilderness designation; and Wilderness designation does not supersede the Americans with Disability Act.
Fortunately, after six of us testified against the memorial and no one testified for it, Sen. Griego pulled it, saying he created it to encourage discussion among opponents of the bill with the local farmers and ranchers, and felt he had succeeded. But similar legislation will likely pop up again. We need to be ever vigilant, and meanwhile better educate the public on what can and cannot be done in a wilderness or other protected area.
Featured photo “Nambe Lake cliche” by JerryFriedman – Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Common