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The cowboys may be winning

By Henry Lamb
web posted January 21, 2008

Bumper stickers that read "No Moo in ‘92," and "Cattle Free by ‘93" signaled the open warfare between western ranchers and environmental groups in the last decade.  The war is still raging.  Groups such as the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and others, set out years ago to free the West of cattle, sheep, and the ranchers responsible for them.

A favorite tool used by these well-funded organizations is the Wilderness Act of 1964.  This law was enacted originally to preserve nine-million acres of wilderness so "future generations could see what their forefathers had to conquer."  Now, there are 702 officially designated Wilderness Areas, covering 107.4 million acres.  Every year, environmental groups propose, and lobby Congress to designate, even more areas as "Wilderness."  There are 38 such bills in the current Congress. 

Wilderness designation is a legal term that prohibits the use of motorized vehicles in the area.  There can be no commercial enterprise in a wilderness area.  There can be no roads, nor permanent structures.  Motorized equipment or mechanized transport is prohibited.  Wilderness means land "untrammeled by humans."

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance led a campaign to designate an additional 422,138 acres in Dona Ana County, New Mexico, as wilderness, and another 108,000 acres as a National Conservation Area. The federal government owns 34.1 percent of New Mexico, of which, 1.6 million acres is already designated as wilderness. 

The new area proposed by the NMWA borders Mexico and includes thousands of acres of grazing land, which would automatically become "No Moo" zones.  Ranchers, and the businesses that depend upon them, would join the cowboy graveyard that environmental organizations have cultivated over the last few decades.

Maybe not.

The same cowboy ingenuity that made ranching in the West possible in the first place, stirred, and assembled a group of people who created a new organization: People For Preserving Our Western Heritage.

With all their high-priced lobbyists, the NMWA wilderness proposal looked like a done deal.  Singing the same old tired tune about "protecting the environment," they secured endorsements from area towns and county government, and other organizations.  But they didn't tell all of the truth.

The new organization, PFPOWH, developed a great audio/visual presentation that explains all the facts about wilderness designation.  For example, motorized vehicles cannot be used in a wilderness area to fight fires or to chase illegal aliens, or drug smugglers.

Consider the impact that wilderness designation would have on a single ranch in the area, that has 89 miles of fencing, 56 miles of roads, 20 earthen reservoirs, eight water wells, 16 miles of pipelines for moving water to 11 storage tanks, nine cattle corrals, three barns, and two residences. 

A single vote in Congress could wipe out a lifetime of struggle for this ranching family, and the many other ranchers in the area.  Consider the impact on the businesses that supply the fencing, the equipment the ranchers use to maintain the roads and pipelines and storage tanks.  This, of course, is precisely the goal of the environmental organizations that are pushing for wilderness designation.

The cowboys are not simply opposing the wilderness designation.  They have put their heads together, and consulted others in the community to come up with an alternative proposal: The Dona Ana County Planned Growth, Open Space and Rangeland Preservation Act.   This legislation seeks to incorporate common sense into the idea of protecting open space while providing the flexibility for ranchers to continue operations, and allow law enforcement officials to use motorized vehicles in border regions and for emergencies.

More than 550 businesses and area organizations now support this alternative proposal and most of the early endorsements of the NMWA wilderness proposal have been withdrawn.  Cowboy ingenuity has once again produced a way that may allow them to continue to nurture the wide open spaces and provide water, not only for their own livestock, but for wildlife as well.

This common-sense approach to protecting both the environment and the heritage of the West may well become a beacon that guides other communities and states.  Environmental organizations have inflicted far too much "wilderness" on the West, and have buried far too many cowboys and the businesses that they support. 

Ranchers are not simply in the cattle business; they are in the business of cultivating the vegetation on which their cattle depend.  In the doing of it, they minister to the land and to the wildlife that is the environment that everyone wants to protect. ESR

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.






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