New Mexico legislators introduce bill to protect wilderness in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument – photo courtesy Wikimedia

Two members of New Mexico’s Congressional delegation have introduced a bill that would designate more than 13,000 acres within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Questa. The proposal would protect a volcanic caldera that provides a roadless corridor benefitting elk, bears, and mountain lions.

The bill aims to correct an omission in the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act, which became law as part of a broad public lands bill signed by the president in March 2019. That legislation established the 13,420 acre Cerro del Yuta Wilderness and the 8,120 acre Río San Antonio Wilderness.

Democratic Reps. Deb Haaland and Ben Ray Lujan are co-sponsoring the bill to establish the Cerro de la Olla Wilderness.

New Mexico’s two senators, Martin Heinrich (D) and Tom Udall (D), introduced similar legislation in January 2020. Their bill was given a hearing by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining, in September.

President Barack Obama designated the national monument in March 2013.

Great American Outdoors Act signed into law

President Donald J. Trump has signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law. The bill guarantees $900 million per year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and sets aside $9.5 billion over the next five fiscal years to address maintenance and repair backlogs in National Park Service and other public land agency facilities.

The funding will be provided by royalties paid by oil and gas, coal, and renewable energy companies to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The LWCF was created in 1965. It promised to dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars per year from oil and gas royalties to acquire new federal park lands and to support state and local park development. Actual appropriations have generally fallen far short of that contemplated level. A Ducks Unlimited report indicated that, before the authorization of LWCF expired in 2018, it had been fully funded only twice in 54 years.

The LWCF has financed the purchase of at least seven million acres of public land, either for outright ownership by governments or as easements, over the years.

The measure passed the Senate by a 73-25 vote in June and the House of Representatives by a vote of 310-107, almost all majority Democrats and about half of minority Republicans voting in favor of it. Nevertheless, Trump invited only GOP legislators to the bill signing ceremony at the White House.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the Great American Outdoors Act is “the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century.”

House passes bill to protect more than one million acres of wilderness

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would add more than a million acres of land to the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Protecting America’s Wilderness Act would extend preservation to public land in California, Colorado, and Washington.

The bill would designate more wilderness than any other bill passed by the House in more than a decade. “We have been working on this legislation for more than 20 years,” Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and the bill’s sponsor, said. “The areas that will be protected under this bill are some of the most beautiful and pristine landscapes that our country has to offer.”

Among the public lands that would be added to the nation’s inventory of designated wilderness are:

  • 660,000 acres in 36 areas across Colorado, including  the Handies Peak, Dolores River Canyon, Little Book Cliffs, Diamond Breaks, Papoose Canyon, North Ponderosa Gorge, and South Ponderosa Gorge areas;
  • 312,500 acres in Northwest California, by means of expanding nine existing wilderness areas and creating eight new ones;
  • 30,700 acres of newly-designated wilderness in Southern California; and
  • 126,544 acres of newly-designated wilderness on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

H.R. 2546 would also add nearly 1,300 river miles in the three states to the National Wild and Scenic River System.

The bill was approved on a 231-183 vote. It is not expected to receive consideration in the Republican-controlled Senate this year.