Feds accept land donation, unlocking Sabinoso Wilderness

The 16,030-acre Sabinoso Wilderness is a remote area in the northeastern portion of New Mexico. Courtesy BLM

A rugged patch of Northern New Mexico wilderness protected by federal law but inaccessible to the public is now within reach.

The U.S. Interior Department announced Thursday it has accepted a donation of nearly 3,600 acres next to the Sabinoso Wilderness outside Las Vegas, N.M., expanding the protected area and connecting it to a road that will open the land to the public for the first time.

Just a few months ago, plans to make the Sabinoso accessible seemed like another flashpoint in the partisan fight over protecting public land in the era of President Donald Trump. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke expressed reluctance on Capitol Hill about adding to the wilderness area. But following a visit there in July, Zinke had a change of heart. His announcement Thursday was met with bipartisan cheers.

“I originally had concerns about adding more wilderness-designated area,” Zinke said in a statement, “however after hiking and riding the land it was clear that access would only be improved.”

Congress designated the 16,000 acres as a wilderness area in 2009.

A remote area of San Miguel County, the land is defined by high, narrow mesas surrounded by canyons covered in piñon and juniper, and it is treasured as a pristine habitat for elk, mule deer and other wildlife.

But the area is surrounded on all sides by private property, with no way for the general public to enter.

Last year, a private nonprofit organization announced that a $3.1 million gift allowed it to buy a ranch neighboring the Sabinoso. The Wilderness Land Trust said it would give the Rimrock Rose Ranch to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. With that addition, the wilderness area would extend across a scenic canyon to a plot of public land connected to a road that could serve as a gateway to the Sabinoso.

But the trust insisted the federal government extend wilderness protections to the land.

Wilderness status restricts development and natural resource extraction, such as mining, and prohibits certain modes of travel, such as off-road vehicles and mountain bikes.

Sportsmen vocally supported the proposal, eyeing the area’s wildlife.

“The purpose is to add access,” Reid Haughey, the trust’s strategic adviser, said during an interview in July. “One of the main drivers for that is that it’s believed to be a pristine and wonderful hunting opportunity.”

Local officials as well as the administration of President Barack Obama backed the plan, and it passed environmental reviews. But the Trump administration came to power in the middle of the process with a very different approach to managing public lands and a skepticism toward expanding protections.

In a testy exchange during a Senate hearing in June, Zinke questioned whether wilderness status might run counter to the idea of expanding access to the public.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, suggested the federal government would be “looking a gift horse in the mouth” if it let the deal fall apart.

By its nature, the area is rugged, he noted, already limiting access.

The debate seemed to pit the administration’s own rhetoric on public lands against the calls of hunters and anglers.

Heinrich countered that if the department did not accept the land or the deal fell through, the Sabinoso would remain inaccessible.

In a statement Thursday, Heinrich said, “Through this collaborative effort to create public access to the Sabinoso we will ensure that outdoor enthusiasts from near and far can finally experience all that this special landscape has to offer and safeguard it for our children and all future generations.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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