Protecting remaining federal land is bureau’s responsibility

December 4, 2016 • Editorial, Opinion

By Judy Calman

In response to the article published on Oct. 19, “Potential Restricted Use of Federal Lands Making Some Fret: BLM Officials, Locals talk about Carlsbad Resource Management Plan,” unfortunately, people have been misinformed about what the conservation community is proposing, as well as what wilderness and “lands with wilderness characteristics” mean.
As part of Resource Management Planning, the Bureau of Land Management is required by law to do an inventory of its land for wilderness characteristics, as well as to consider whether areas deserve protection as ACECs (Area of Critical Environmental Concern).
There is a lot of confusion about what wilderness means. Contrary to common belief, wilderness does not mean an area is completely cut off from human use.
Virtually the only limitation on congressionally designated wilderness is that motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited in order to maintain its roadless character (and as they are required to have no roads in the first place, no one is currently driving in them, making it hard to argue that uses are being “taken away”).
Grazing is permitted in wilderness, as well as hunting, hiking, camping and many other activities.
Whether an area has wilderness characteristics is not subjective. It is an area of at least 5,000 roadless acres, which is generally in a natural state and which provides opportunities for primitive recreation or solitude.
BLM cannot designate wilderness in the same way Congress can; it can only decide (if it chooses) to manage areas with wilderness characteristics for preservation of those characteristics. This ensures that, should Congress decide to designate them in the future, the lands would still be in a pristine state.
BLM land in the Carlsbad Field Office is almost entirely leased for oil and gas (around 85 percent). In contrast, almost none of its land is designated for protection. But it contains sensitive desert rivers, a huge population of raptors and a number of endangered species, all of which have value.
There are very few areas in the office that qualify as lands with wilderness characteristics, as areas with 5,000 roadless acres are uncommon in a highly developed field office.
But some protection for these areas isn’t a bad thing. People have to live in Carlsbad. It recently received an “F” rating for its air quality from the American Lung Association. Protecting the few remaining areas on BLM land that are not currently slated to be developed for oil allows southeast New Mexico residents to have a few spots of unspoiled public lands to enjoy, provides some fresher air and allows space for its high-level biodiversity to thrive. It also allows tourists to have additional areas to explore besides the national park.
BLM’s job is to hold public land, which belongs to all Americans, in trust for the benefit of future generations. It is mandated to do so in a multiple-use manner, meaning one single use cannot be the only thing that occurs on its land.
With 85 percent of the Carlsbad Field Office leased for oil and gas, a few protections on the remaining lands is not only not too much to ask, it’s BLM’s responsibility to the public.
Judy Calman is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance in Albuquerque. She may be contacted at, or 505-843-8696.

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