Students join effort to protect wild land
New Mexico is a wild place, but there’s no guarantee it will stay that way.
Outside factors like commercial interests and abusive recreation practices could destroy wild land, but it would remain untouched if it were declared official wilderness.
That’s the goal of the UNM Wilderness Alliance, said John Kavanaugh, president of the association.
“Wilderness is very much a citizen movement,” he said. “It’s people like the UNM Wilderness pushing for the designation, and that’s how we get these federal lands designated for wilderness.”
Wilderness titles keep land pristine by guaranteeing government protection for certain land areas. No motorized or wheeled vehicles, including mountain bikes, are allowed on protected areas. However, camping, hiking, rock climbing, bird watching and hunting are all activities that are allowed.
The Sandias, Manzanos, Pecos and the Ojito mountain ranges are wilderness areas.
Currently, Kavanaugh said the group is documenting the Manzano wilderness’ expanses. Basically, the group hikes all the back trails and takes note of how many people utilize the area and in what manner. By doing so, the group provides valuable data to an overworked Forest Service, Kavanaugh said.
“They don’t have the funds or personnel to effectively manage everything as they would like to,” he said. “Us, as citizen volunteers, we go out there and see what sort of use it’s getting. Although, it’s just an excuse great to go hiking, really.”
Nathan Newcomer, the associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said he started the UNM organization about six years ago because it’s important to have a college chapter.
“When you look you at the conservation movement, it’s a lot of older people,” he said. “It’s a need to get college students involved.”
That’s not all the group does, though.
A lot of the time it has political petitions fighting for more wilderness designations, such as its current one for the Otero Mesa, or to protect endangered species, like last year with the lobo.
And there’s no shortage of work to do.
The group said only about 2 percent of New Mexico is designated wilderness compared to the relatively high proportion of wild land — land that’s undeveloped, but not protected by the government — which is around 42 percent.
Yadeeh Sawyer, vice president of the UNM chapter, said she wants these places around the state to be valued.
“We want the places you think of as wild and people to appreciate it for what it could be, what it is, and for the future of it,” she said.
The group encourages everyone to get involved with its meetings or hikes.
Sawyer said getting more paying, card-carrying members is not her biggest priority.
“We prefer someone go out on a hike with us and be involved and not pay than to limit the involvement.”
In fact, Kavanaugh said keeping New Mexico wilderness, the birthplace of the movement, alive is the group’s most important goal.
“I am actually from Virginia where I got to see wild places being destroyed actively,” Kavanaugh said. “I came out to New Mexico seven years ago and just fell in love. The Chihuahuain desert to the Pecos Wilderness to the trout streams in the Gila. It’s all good.”