Compared to the sprawling national monument in Southern New Mexico where U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had spent the past couple of days, the Sabinoso Wilderness is a speck on the map.
But the 16,000-acre site between Las Vegas, N.M., and Mosquero, defined by rugged mesas and canyons, could be another flashpoint as President Donald Trump’s administration sharply changes the federal government’s approach to protecting public lands.
The only site in the federal government’s wilderness preservation system that is legally inaccessible to the public, the Sabinoso is surrounded on all sides by private property.
A deal announced last year by a private nonprofit willing to donate a neighboring ranch to the Bureau of Land Management would at last open a route into the wilderness area and give sportsmen access to what many view as a pristine backcountry hunting ground. The arrangement would seem like a logical move for Zinke, who signed an order on his first day in office earlier this year directing the Department of the Interior to expand access to federal lands.
But the donation is still awaiting the new secretary’s approval as hunting season approaches.
The holdup, as Zinke told a Senate committee last month in a somewhat testy exchange, is that the donated land would become part of the wilderness area and fall under its special protections and restrictions.
A carefully stage-managed trip to the site Saturday set up something of a test for an Interior secretary who has at once touted himself as a friend of the outdoorsman while also proposing to roll back protections for some public lands.
“Is this all hat and no cattle, or is he going to follow up on his proclamation?” said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonprofit group advocating for sportsmen who use public lands. “I have all the hope that he does, but if he doesn’t, that really flies in the face of what he signed on day one.”
Though conservationists had proposed for decades to designate the Sabinoso a wilderness area, Congress only granted the site that status in 2009. Still, the only way in has been through private property, effectively leaving the area off-limits to the public.
So, while the names of the more familiar wilderness areas, such as the Pecos Wilderness, Wheeler Peak Wilderness and Latir Peak Wilderness, may evoke images of their sky-scraping summits and clear lakes, Sabinoso probably does not conjure up much in the minds of Northern New Mexicans.
Hunters have eyed the area for its variety of wildlife, however, and cheered the deal announced last year that would have at last opened the wilderness — at least to anyone willing to make a steep hike.
A nonprofit organization, the Wilderness Land Trust, announced in January 2016 that a $3.1 million gift from a private foundation allowed it to buy a ranch neighboring the Sabinoso. The trust planned to give the roughly 4,000-acre Rimrock Rose Ranch to the 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.
The handover seemed to go smoothly through an environmental assessment. And the addition has support from sportsmen’s groups as well as local officials in San Miguel County. Congress has not objected, nor has the state, which is only asking the federal government swap grazing rights that fall within another part of the wilderness for land elsewhere.
But while the administration of President Barack Obama backed the proposal, the Trump administration came to power in the middle of the process with a very different approach to managing public lands.
The Wilderness Land Trust’s donation comes with the condition that it would become part of the wilderness area, which would place it off-limits to development and mechanized transportation such as trucks and bikes.
And that has appeared to be a point of contention for the Trump administration.
Zinke told U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, during a committee hearing in Washington, D.C., last month that the administration would rather take the land with fewer restrictions.
When Heinrich repeated that adding it to the wilderness area was a condition of the donation, Zinke replied: “I don’t yield to pressure, only higher principle.”
The secretary’s visit to New Mexico stemmed from a debate over the protections granted to certain federal lands.
Zinke spent Thursday and Friday at the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces, which is one of two large monuments in New Mexico and about two dozen around the country that Trump has ordered Zinke to review.
Some conservatives in the West have lauded the review, arguing that several recently created monuments amount to overreach by a federal government they view as hostile to ranchers and industry.
But conservationists fear the review threatens to undo decades of work by local communities to preserve some of the country’s most remarkable public lands. And in New Mexico, advocates worry that cutting the size of some national monuments would be a setback for a tourism industry that has proven a bright spot in a state that has struggled economically.
Zinke met with critics of the monument designation and its boosters. But he ducked an invitation by local mayors and county commissioners to attend a public meeting in Las Cruces. His aides also barred reporters from all events except a news conference. And those who met with the secretary said later that he offered little indication what steps he would recommend the president take on the monument’s status — whether he favored keeping it intact, cutting its size or eliminating it altogether.
Some pointed to something of an irony behind the secretary’s visit.
The fate of national monuments established after years of campaigning by local residents could be decided by a short trip by Zinke and a review process that is set to end in August after only a few months.
“On one hand, it was nice to spend probably 40 or so minutes in the conversation,” state Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, said after meeting with Zinke behind closed doors alongside other lawmakers Friday. “But of course, there’s been over 10 years of sustained dialogue and work to get to this point.”
The Trump administration’s approach to protecting public lands has called into question the next steps for sites like the Sabinoso, too.
Heinrich invited Zinke to tour the site with fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, and after a couple of hours riding around the area on horseback Saturday, the New Mexico lawmakers said the secretary had not exactly committed to the transfer of Rimrock Rose Ranch but would work with them on the details.
“The secretary said we’re going to move forward,” Udall said later.
The trip allowed Zinke to see the ruggedness of the landscape and the logistics of the site, he said.
The tone seemed different, too, from the secretary’s exchange with Heinrich last month.
Zinke posted photos on his Twitter account with his arms around both senators and on horseback, writing that he “had fun horsing around.”
And Heinrich, who had previously characterized Zinke as “looking a gift horse in the mouth” on the deal, said Saturday he was “much more optimistic” about the future of the site.
Zinke’s aides barred The New Mexican from covering the event.
But on Friday, staff at the Wilderness Land Trust were optimistic the secretary would give the go-ahead for the deal.
“This is an administration that talks philosophically about no additions to public lands,” said Reid Haughey, the trust’s strategic adviser.
But ultimately, Haughey argues, it is a straight-\forward deal.
“This,” he said, “is a gift to the United States.”
Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.