Opinion: Opening Sabinoso a major gain for New Mexico

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As fall hunting season gets underway, I am proud to announce that New Mexico sportsmen will finally be able to access the stunning landscapes in the Sabinoso Wilderness. Located on just over 16,000 acres in San Miguel County, in between Las Vegas and Mosquero, the Sabinoso Wilderness, which was designated in 2009, is home to a variety of wildlife, including mule deer, elk and wild turkey. Its dramatic landscape includes the 1,000-foot tall Canyon Largo and striking rock formations.

Up until now, the Sabinoso’s narrow mesas, rugged canyons and spectacular grasslands were the only legally inaccessible wilderness area in the entire nation. Surrounded by private land and without a legal road or trail to get there, the public was effectively locked out of this stunning landscape that we all own.

Last year, I welcomed the announcement that the Wilderness Land Trust purchased a 4,176-acre property neighboring the Sabinoso, with the purpose of donating the land to the Bureau of Land Management. The donated property includes a legal road easement allowing access to the edge of Largo Canyon and by extension the entire Sabinoso Wilderness. The only step that was needed to complete the deal was agreement from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to add this land to the existing wilderness and create the new public access route.

Through my role on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I called on Secretary Zinke to accept this donation and open up the Sabinoso. In June, I invited him to come visit the community and hear directly from New Mexicans about the overwhelming public benefits of acquiring this land. Over a weekend in July, Secretary Zinke joined Senator Tom Udall and me on horseback to ride into Canyon Largo with local sportsmen, public land advocates and community leaders who worked for years to find a way to open up the Sabinoso.

Local sportsmen’s groups as well as the San Miguel County Commission enthusiastically endorsed this proposal, which represents a major economic opportunity for Las Vegas and its surrounding communities. Outdoor traditions like hunting, hiking, camping and fishing are an integral part of our way of life in New Mexico, and they support a thriving outdoor recreation economy that supports 99,000 jobs and generates $9.9 billion of consumer spending in New Mexico each year. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has found that hunters and anglers alone generate more than $613 million in annual consumer spending in our state.

Communities in San Miguel County and throughout Northern New Mexico will now begin to see those economic benefits from the Sabinoso. New visitors drawn to the Sabinoso will shop in local stores, fill up at gas stations, hire local outfitter guides, spend the night in nearby hotels and eat at local restaurants.

After seeing the landscape in person and witnessing the overwhelming local support, I’m grateful that Secretary Zinke has done the right thing and agreed to the proposal to unlock the Sabinoso Wilderness. Now that the public will be able to access this incredible place, it will surely become an important destination for hunters, hikers, and campers from nearby communities and around the nation.

I’m dedicated to ensuring our kids and grandkids can learn the joys of catching fish and chasing mule deer on all of our public lands. The next generation of hunters and anglers will fund tens of billions of dollars in conservation and restoration through buying habitat stamps and Duck Stamps and by paying taxes on ammunition, tackle and motorboat fuel, all of which are dedicated to conserving fish and wildlife.

I have introduced the HUNT Act, which requires public land agencies to identify “landlocked” public lands like the Sabinoso that are priorities for sportsmen and other recreational users and find solutions to open these special outdoor places to the public. If we work to conserve our natural resources and open up public access, New Mexicans will continue to enjoy the benefits of the public lands we all own and love.

– U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich is a Democrat from New Mexico. 

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