U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced Wednesday he intends to approve a plan to accept the donation of a 3,600-acre ranch that would open the landlocked Sabinoso Wilderness in northeastern New Mexico to the public.
Zinke toured the area in San Miguel County late last month on horseback alongside Democratic U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico.
"I originally had concerns about adding more wilderness-designated area," Zinke said in a statement. "However, after hiking and riding the land it was clear that access would only be improved if the [U.S. Department of the Interior] accepted the land and maintained the existing roadways."
People who have been fighting for access to the Sabinoso Wilderness, which is surrounded by private land, welcomed the announcement with guarded optimism because the transfer isn't final. In his announcement, Zinke said the Interior Department "intends to finalize the process to consider whether to accept" the property, formerly known as Rimrock Rose Ranch.
Jason Amaro, Southwest chapter coordinator of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said Zinke's announcement shows that sportsmen have a voice.
"Together, hunters and anglers unanimously urged Secretary Ryan Zinke to do the right thing, and today's announcement marks the first step to securing public access to one of New Mexico's premier wilderness areas," Amaro said in a statement. "We thank Senators Heinrich and Udall for their leadership to get us to this date and look forward to continued partnership with Secretary Zinke and his staff to finalize this long-awaited agreement."
Zinke traveled to New Mexico in July as part of a review of national monuments requested by President Donald Trump. Zinke's office is reconsidering the status of more than two dozen national monuments, including Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in Southern New Mexico and Rio Grande del Norte in the northern part of the state.
In his announcement about the Sabinoso Wilderness, Zinke said expanding access to hunting, fishing and recreation on federal lands is one of his priorities.
"Thanks to the donation of a private organization, we continue to move toward delivering this nonpartisan win for sportsmen and the community," Zinke said.
Last year, the nonprofit Wilderness Land Trust bought the ranch with the intention of donating it the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Interior Department, to increase public access. But Zinke had reservations about accepting the donation because the land would become part of the wilderness area and fall under its special protections and restrictions.
Wednesday's announcement states that the BLM "will now continue its decision-making process and prepare a number of realty actions" that could take three to four months to complete.
"I'm a little unclear about that because we're ready to transfer it, and it could happen very quickly," said Reid Haughey, a strategic adviser for the Wilderness Land Trust. "I think it can be done more quickly."
Haughey said the nonprofit's goal has been and continues to be to have the wilderness area open for hunting season.
Still, he said, Zinke's announcement was a good sign.
"We're really encouraged that after the site visit to the property, he sees the value of moving forward with this, but I'm not aware of any details beyond that," he said. "We're the current owner of the property, so we've been anxious to complete this donation for some period of time."
Heinrich, Udall and Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico issued statements supporting Zinke's action.
"Sabinoso is the only American wilderness without public access, so I am heartened that Secretary Zinke is moving to finalize an agreement with the Wilderness Land Trust that will allow hikers, sportsmen and others to enjoy this pristine New Mexico landscape," Udall said.
Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said in an email:
"Places to test our grit, find true adventure, and experience solitude are far and few between. Today, we got one step closer to chasing elk and Barbary sheep in the backcountry, something sportsmen and women have been coveting for decades."
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.