(Story by Gail Snyder / Photos by Mark Allison and Stephen Lang)
The summer I was 11, my parents, my four brothers and I drove up the spine of California to Sequoia National Park for a week. Evidence of otherworldly giant trees was everywhere; even the air was palpably clean, crisp, redwood-scented. That week stands out for my brothers and me as an odd, magical reprieve from our usual bickering. We were still rowdy but it was a happy, calm and sated rowdiness. Keeping company with the Sequoias undeniably inspired in us this desire to be better, kinder. It would’ve seemed wrong somehow, offensive to the trees, to do otherwise. It turns out our experience wasn’t an anomaly; scientific studies confirm that being in the presence of trees improves our mental and physical health, in large part because the wood emits its essential oils into the air. Called “forest bathing,” it’s been added to Japan’s national health program, and it’s just one among an enormous array of gifts bestowed on us by wilderness.
Ironically, as appreciation for wilderness benefits has risen, the areas have become especially vulnerable. Mark Allison, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, says, “We’re facing one of the most hostile environments for public lands” in recent memory. His organization is gearing up “to play a lot of defense.” Rather than getting depressed or helpless as we watch TV news, Mark says, don’t abandon hope; “get involved in something bigger than yourself!”
The original founders of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, or New Mexico Wild, as it is popularly referred to now, in response to threats, came from all over the state, says Mark, beginning in the ’70s, “especially from the labs, bringing a background of scientific training, as well as folks doing battle with the oil and gas companies and other organizations with deep pockets.” In 1997, New Mexico Wild formally established itself as the statewide grassroots voice for our wildlands, kicking off what became their first victory in the mid-2000s: the protection of the Ojito Wilderness Area, in a collaborative effort with Zia Pueblo, New Mexico Governor Bruce King and other statewide elected government officials. Their bill was unanimously passed through both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate; George W. Bush signed the Ojito Wilderness Act into law in 2005. It was an impressive debut.
In the 21 years since it formed, the nonprofit has never stopped working for New Mexico’s wildlands, helping to establish the Sabinoso Wilderness Act in 2008; the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009; followed by the establishment of our two recent National Monuments, the Rio Grande del Norte in 2013, and the Organ Mountain Desert Peaks in 2014, both monuments designated by Obama. Just last June, in tandem with Wild Earth Guardians, New Mexico Wild won their case in federal court challenging the U.S. Department of Justice’s policy stating anyone killing animals on the Endangered Species Act list were only prosecuted if it were proven that the killer knew the exact biological identity of the species harmed. (DOJ has appealed this case.)
With offices spanning the state, New Mexico Wild is connected to the pulse of our diverse population, including ranchers, sports enthusiasts, land grant heirs, acequia communities, tribal and religious leaders, scientists, elementary school students, youth and community leaders. “We are the largest, independent, homegrown, grassroots advocacy organization focused exclusively on land conservation and wilderness in New Mexico,” Mark says. Bringing so many disparate people together “couldn’t be done but for groups like us.” With the issue of public lands becoming more and more politicized, he says, the current atmosphere is one of high polarization. “But communities are so often ahead of our elected leaders—most people care about our public lands.”
Passing legislation is the main part of New Mexico Wild’s job. “And in order to do that, we have to listen, persuade and find common ground. All the richness of New Mexico’s people—we want everyone at the table. We’re the organizers, the mediators in all and any difficult conversations, including opposition. We want people to feel heard. Sure, we have setbacks all the time! We have to take the long view. We don’t quit, we just keep coming back! If it takes 10 years, it takes 10 years.” Also, “it makes our job much easier having such champions as [Sen. Tom] Udall and [Sen. Martin] Heinrich in our corner. We’re very fortunate in that respect.” And, he acknowledges, “we’re standing on the shoulders of significant tribal leaders. To have them out front, it’s very moving, an honor to be working at their sides.” Last year, at All Pueblo Council of Governor’s Meeting of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos, the president and vice president of the Navajo Nation joined in for the first time; New Mexico Wild was also there. The driving force behind this historic summit was the need to protect the greater Chaco Canyon area from effects of fracking by gas and oil corporations and the attendant health problems of Native communities close by. “It was very humbling,” Mark says, “to be a part of that discussion.” Everything New Mexico Wild does is with partners.
Also last year, partnering with the Wilderness Land Trust, New Mexico Wild helped unlock public access to the landlocked Sabinoso Wilderness Area. The Land Trust bought adjacent property, offering to donate it to the Bureau of Land Management; last November, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited the area, and accepted the gift. New Mexico Wild contributed nearly 1,000 hours of volunteer fieldwork to the effort.
One of the most gratifying—and fun—parts of New Mexico Wild’s efforts is bringing people together and helping them discover that, although their reasons for valuing public lands may differ, they all share a passion to save it from being destroyed. Encouraging kids to come into the wilderness—“That’s the best!” Mark says. He describes groups of elementary school kids visiting for the first time. “You ask, ‘Do you know who owns all this?’ They shake their heads. ‘You do!” we tell them. And they start to really get it—‘This is my heritage! This is my birthright!’” New Mexico Wild staff members take high school groups, often paired with BLM or Forest Service agency staff, on wilderness field trips. They recently brought retired combat vets, working on fire crews with the Southwest Conservation Corps, together with students to share time together, hike, and help clear brush. “Ultimately, this is how we cultivate the next generations of wilderness stewards.” And it works. A New Mexico Wild member, retired U.S. Navy SEAL Brett Myrick, hiked through the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument with Secretary Zinke, himself an avid outdoorsman and former military leader, during the Secretary’s visit here in August. To further drive the point home about where he and 37 other active and retired Navy SEALS stand on Zinke’s decision to remove protections for national monuments, Brett gave Sec. Zinke a letter, signed by all, reminding him the military has a strong culture of natural resources stewardship and that public lands get military families out into wilderness, an invaluable healing experience for combat vets.
As we head into 2018, New Mexico Wild’s agenda is full, and includes legislation in the Senate to designate the Gila River as a Wild and Scenic River. One of the biggest challenge just came to light: to combat a proposal that would seriously jeopardize all of their work in the greater Gila Wilderness area. Holloman Air Force Base plans to begin conducting military training exercises on a scale that would make “the entire Gila National Forest look and sound like a war zone.” These approximately 30 overflights a day, will be low altitude jets “screaming only 500 feet above the National Forest and 2,000 feet above Wilderness, while dropping 30,000 magnesium flares and ‘defensive chaff’ a year.” The U.S. Air Force is obligated to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act’s process requiring public involvement, but “had it not been for a vigilant supporter bringing this to our attention, this preposterous plan might have gone unchallenged.” New Mexico Wild immediately wrote to Holloman AFB asking that the since-expired public scoping period be extended. They contacted partner organizations and businesses affected, securing endorsements from dozens of groups. “We also reached out to other groups that are typically hostile to our efforts. We think there is common cause on this issue.” New Mexico Wild is demanding answers to disturbing questions associated with this proposal. “I’ve never seen a community so outraged,” Mark says. “They’re rising up, letting their voices be heard. People feel desperate, like they can’t make a difference, they’re powerless, but that’s just not true. When we stand together, we have all the power in the world.”
The Gila is America’s first designated wilderness area. Mark says, “There’s no guarantee we’ll be successful, but if we don’t try, the guarantee is that we won’t be. If we do the job right, we’ll scare them off and they’ll go somewhere else.” New Mexico Wild submitted technical scoping comments, demanded that the Air Force hold public meetings in Silver City; organized a community rally and encouraged individual citizens to sign petitions, and write letters to our senators, letters to the editor, and opinion pieces.
“The 1964 Wilderness Act is the gold standard for our public lands, keeping them free from development, roads and mechanized activities,” Mark says. “It’s a place where people can get away from industry’s sights, smells and sounds, a space of solace. You can snowshoe, hike, backpack there; you can still practice traditional uses like hunting and fishing. People do sacred ceremonies, collect herbs or traditional plants.” He pauses. “And, above all, wilderness is important as an idea. Even if you never go there. We need places that are untrammeled by humans, that exist in their natural state, for wildlife, for water. The wilderness is a spiritual place. I think, for me, at its most basic, it’s where we came from. It reconnects us. When we go out and stand around a fire, we’re back to the times before cell phones, cars, jets. It’s profound to allow that space and quiet, that dark sky affect us, bring us clarity.”
New Mexico Wild will never give up this mission of protection. “Legislation protects places in perpetuity, for our children and our grandchildren. It’s a pretty heady thing!” Mark laughs. In the Winter 2017 issue of New Mexico Wild!, Mark writes of 2018 being the time in which “the sleeping bear wakes.” He imagines in an editorial “what our world could look like 10 years from now.” What follows is a joyous list of victories, laced with humor, that we—New Mexico Wild and all of us who care about wilderness—will have accomplished by 2027. In his usual never-say-die fashion, he concludes, “You’ll no doubt recall that 2017 was a particularly tough year, but instead of despairing, we rolled up our sleeves and redoubled our efforts. And, while there were certainly setbacks and heartache these last 10 years, and many challenges remain, I couldn’t be prouder to have worked with you, shoulder to shoulder.”