Audubon contests bill threatens bird habitat
Audubon New Mexico issued a press release on Thursday that warns a bill in Congress dubbed the “Great Outdoors Giveaway,” H.R. 1581, would remove protection from more than 83,000 acres of bird habitat near Bosque del Apache and nearly 60 million acres of wilderness area across the West. The release claims that the bill would open up areas prized for recreation, wildlife, clean water and tourism to development and road-building activities.
The bill is sponsored by California Congressman Kevin McCarthy and co-sponsored by New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce.
According to the release, the bill would remove protection from over 2 million acres of U.S. Forest Service roadless areas and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in New Mexico.
That includes 83,282 acres of WSAs in central New Mexico ecologically connected to the Bosque del Apache and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuges and the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex, each of which is located in Socorro County and recognized Important Bird Areas — sites that provide essential breeding, migrating or wintering habitat for one or more species of bird.
Asked for a response to the press release, Jamie Dickerman, Pearce’s press secretary, replied to El Defensor Chieftain in an email:
“As Chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, Congressman Pearce is proud to be an original cosponsor of H.R. 1581, The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011. This legislation is good for the West and good for America. It will allow more Americans to enjoy our federal lands, and allow us to actually protect the habitats of wildlife through proper land management.”
Dickerson wrote that the BLM-owned lands set for release from WSA designation in the bill were already deemed unsuitable for wilderness designation by the Department of Interior.
“Congressman Pearce knows that we need common sense solutions, not government restrictions that prohibit New Mexicans from using our roads to access and enjoy the treasures of our state,” Dickerson wrote. “Additionally, if these lands are released from WSA status, they will still be under federal ownership, and receive the same protections.”
Audubon New Mexico Executive Director Karyn Stockdale and Phil Norton, a retired ecologist who worked in the region and still lives nearby, led a tour along the Quebradas Backcountry Byway east of Socorro on April 11. Among the areas threatened by the Great Outdoors Giveaway, they said, are the Presilla, Sierra de las Canas, Stallion and Veranito Wilderness Study Areas.
“These threatened wilderness areas are critical uplands connected to the crown jewel bird-watching areas of New Mexico,” Karyn Stockdale, Audubon New Mexico’s executive director, stated in the press release. “Opening these areas up to development could certainly impact the unique nature of this region, which draws tourists from across the country and around the world.”
Phoebe Wood, owner of Casa Blanca Bed and Breakfast in San Antonio, also expressed concern over the possible ramifications, should the bill be passed.
“In California, many of the prime bird habitats are bounded by development, ruining the bird-watching value and experience for tourists,” she said. “Here in New Mexico, our local Important Bird Areas attract thousands of people to our state each year — people who stay at our hotels, eat in our restaurants and pump money into our economy. Part of the appeal of New Mexico’s prime bird areas are the wide open spaces that border them and transport visitors to another place and time.”
The Audubon New Mexico press release states that wildlife and outdoor recreation play an important economic role in New Mexico, injecting $3.8 billion into the state annually, sustaining 47,000 jobs and generating $184 million in yearly sales tax revenue.
Bird watching alone is a significant driving force for tourism in New Mexico, and the state ranks fifth nationally for participants in the activity, with 46 percent of its birders coming from outside its borders, according to the release.
“The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, for example, brings in $13.7 million annually from non-residents to the three counties of Socorro, Bernalillo, and Sierra; along with $4.3 million in regional tax revenues,” the release states.
“We should be increasing protections and improving habitat rather than threatening these critical public lands,” Wood said.