As 1,200 miles of road inside the Gila National Forest will inevitably be closed in July as the Gila National Forest Travel Management Plan takes effect, Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich is pushing legislation at the national level to allow public lands to be more “public” and accessible to the average person.
Heinrich traveled to Deming this weekend to speak with a group of sportsmen, hunters and fishermen about the proposed legislation, the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act, which he and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, introduced to the Senate in 2012. Their legislation is now a part of the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015. Heinrich made his presentation Sunday afternoon at La Fonda Restaurant in Deming, answering questions about the act, which aims to allow more public access to public lands.
The proposed law, for the most part, would allow public lands like the Gila National Forest to be more publicly accessible, unless otherwise discussed in an open public forum. It would allow for small film crews to enter and film, for hunters and fishermen to practice their sport without restriction, allow marksmen to target practice in designated areas, and would grant equal access to everyone who would like to enter.
Introducing Heinrich on Sunday was Deming Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Ray Trejo, who said he believed what Henrich and Murkowski are proposing is beneficial to everyone who loves public land access in southwest New Mexico and throughout the country — specifically speaking to sportsmen around the nation.
“Hunting digs really deep,” he said. ‘It was something I was brought up with. I remember some of my proudest moments following my grandfather around these mesquites, shooting cottontails. I didn’t really understand why he took me at the time, but I can tell you without a doubt I was the smallest grandson fetching cottontails out of the mesquite thorns. So I learned how to get through those pretty well, but some of those proudest moments were being able to put that rabbit and hang it on my belt. Things like that you really don’t appreciate, until you get a little older and raise your own families.”
Trejo said that many feel the same way, and that is why public lands should truly be public.
Heinrich, who spoke next, said that there are many things people do not realize about how valuable public lands truly are.
“One of the things that often gets overlooked when it comes to outdoor recreation and hunting and fishing is how many gross receipts tax dollars it generates for local communities,” he said. “We’re talking about activity in New Mexico that generates literally billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs spread throughout the state, oftentimes in small communities and rural communities where it makes the most difference — and that’s really important to remember.”
Heinrich said monetary value aside, these kinds of activities are part of what makes New Mexico great — fostering a love for the outdoors.
“The outdoors is something that defines New Mexicans,” he said. “So many of the people I talk to have a direct relationship to the water and the outdoors.”
After Heinrich spoke in general about the bill, he opened up the floor to the dozen people in the room for questions.
Jim Bates, director at large of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said that public land accesses are consistently decreasing, especially around southwest New Mexico, and wondered about the implementation of Heinrich’s plan.
“All the people gathered here that have worked in this area regarding conservation issues, one of the biggest issues we face is the constantly decreasing amount of public land that’s accessible,” he said. “How do you foresee this legislation is going to impact that, and at what point in time do you think we’ll start seeing those benefits?”
Heinrich said that the provisions in this legislation have been introduced for the past five or six years. Those benefits, he said, is how the Bureau of Land Management is combating the limitation of access to public lands, trying to keep access open in areas.
“They’re focused in a way they weren’t 10 years ago. That is an immediate benefit,” Heinrich said. “Now we’re going to have the funding from Washington to keep tabs on those areas of what can and cannot be accessed. So you don’t have these places that slowly lose access, and nobody even saw it coming — and it will dedicate 1.5 percent, at a minimum, of [Land and Water Conservation Fund] dollars in each budget year towards paying for the easements to get new access to the places we don’t have it, and that piece will be a huge benefit.”
Jason Amaro, a Silver City resident and the New Mexico Sportsman Conservation coordinator of Trout Unlimited — a coldwater fishery conservation group, said that he appreciates the work Heinrich is doing to advocate for public use of public lands.
“About 10 years ago my journey started in conservation,” he said. “I want to say that the work you do now, it’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about our children and what we leave to them. With this act, what you’re doing now, how are you trying to get not only children but Hispanics and minorities involved in this overall process, because we are severely underrepresented.”
Heinrich said that there are a few different answers to this question.
“I think we need to use more charities and nonprofits to do this kind of work,” Heinrich said. “I spent five years of my life running a 501(c)3 whose entire mission was getting people, kids, into the outdoors, hooked on the outdoors and giving them experiential education. So they were getting education but they thought they were having fun. … We need to really find those, whether it’s the Boy Scouts or 4-H or some other nonprofit. We need to invest in those organizations that get that work done, that teach people to fish for the first time. In addition we need to make sure we have places we can plant that seed early enough.”
The bill has only passed through the Senate, and is now before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee before it can reach the House floor. Heinrich is optimistic that it will eventually make it to President Barack Obama’s desk for final approval.
“This was passed into the energy bill [the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 as an amendment] by a vote of 97 to zero,” he said. “You think that this has to be absolutely uncontroversial. Well, it came apart multiple times in the past, and we still have to get it across the finish line by marrying it up with House legislation and getting it to the president’s desk. Because this time it’s gotten so far and has such strong support, I am confident we are going to be able to do that.
“At the end of the day,” Heinrich said, “I think the thing that mattered the most is that we had really strong people on both sides of the aisle who were willing to fight their own parties.”