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Renewed Call for Public Lands Legislation Awaits 2019 Congress

Tourists eager for a glimpse of New Mexico's wilderness and open spaces accounted for a $6.6 billion boost to the state's economy in 2017. (
Tourists eager for a glimpse of New Mexico's wilderness and open spaces accounted for a $6.6 billion boost to the state's economy in 2017. (
December 27, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Congress went home for the holidays without passing legislation to protect major wilderness areas in the West, but people who rely on wilderness areas are urging a vote early next month.

At stake are protections for wilderness within the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte monuments.

Stuart Wilde is known as the "llama guy" in northern New Mexico, because he uses the pack animals to take visitors from all over the world on hiking and camping trips. He says it's not just outfitters, but businesses statewide that benefit when New Mexico's unspoiled wilderness is protected.

"People come here to New Mexico to really enjoy, marvel at, recreate in our magnificent wilderness landscapes, and my business directly depends on having these special places to be able to share," Wilde states.

In addition to New Mexico, the 1.8 million acres that would be protected are in Oregon, California and Utah.

Public-lands advocate Jeff Dray of Las Cruces says when he joined the Army in 2008, he vowed to protect America and its way of life, and in his view, that includes the country's physical attributes.

Dray traveled to Washington to explain to congressional representatives why solitude is so therapeutic to former military personnel.

He notes that the suicide rate among military veterans is about twice that of the general population, according to the federal government, which says roughly 20 veterans commit suicide each day.

"You think about why that is, probably a lot of it is because they have these stresses that they deal with on a daily basis that antagonize them and poke them, and push them, and if they didn't have the ability to just get away from it – I think that really benefits them to be able to do that," he states.

Dray says protecting wildness should be a bipartisan issue.

"My daughter, who just turned six – I want her to be able to enjoy this land and see the same things and experience it in the same way that I've been able to, and I think it's important for all Americans," he stresses.

Public land advocates say they plan to keep up momentum in 2019 to eventually pass legislation that would also protect New Mexico's Greater Chaco region.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - NM