In an increasingly crowded and pay-to-play world, America’s 640 million acres of public lands – including our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands–have become the nation’s mightiest hunting and fishing strongholds.
This is especially true in the West, where according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen depend on access to public lands for hunting. Without these vast expanses of prairie and sagebrush, foothills and towering peaks, the traditions of hunting and fishing as we have known them for the past century would be lost. Gone also would be a very basic American value: the unique and abundant freedom we’ve known for all of us, rich and poor and in-between, to experience our undeveloped and wild spaces, natural wonders, wildlife and waters, and the assets that have made life and citizenship in our country the envy of the world.
In Part Two of our series, we head to the Land of Enchantment to look at the Bootheel of New Mexico.
It is often said that living well is the best revenge. For a hunter, that could mean stalking a high-desert Coues deer buck in short sleeves, while your friends shiver in rain and snow far away to the north.
The Bootheel of far southwestern New Mexico is the answer to a lot of hunters’ winter prayers. Sprawling and mostly uninhabited, the Bootheel is almost one-third public lands, giving hunters room to roam on 488,320 acres managed by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service. It’s a cholla and chaparral world, dry and bony until you get into some rainier and snowier altitudes in the mountains. The Peloncillos, Animas, and Guadalupes are the major ranges, towering from 6,000 to 8,500 feet. The high country encompasses an ecoregion called the Madrean forest, a mixture of piñon pine, junipers, and five different species of oak. There are wild places here, remote and requiring the utmost self-sufficiency, in the Big Hatchet Mountains and the Peloncillos.
The star of this country is the elusive little Coues deer, but there are plenty of other opportunities to spend long days afield. You can hunt three species of quail in one day, starting out in the lower country with Gambel’s and scaled quail and climbing the mountain flanks for the close-holding Mearn’s quail. There are javelinas, mule deer, rare desert bighorns, and a recovered population of Gould’s turkeys – the largest of all the wild turkey subspecies.
These experiences are made possible by public access to federal lands, but some New Mexicans, like so many Westerners, have a deep rooted distrust of the federal government. This distrust has been used by some politicians, who care little for the state’s hunting and outdoor heritage, to push for New Mexico’s federal public lands to be transferred to state control. But transferring the lands is not a viable solution to the conflicts over federal management, because the burdens of management far outweigh any benefits that would come to most residents. The financial burden, in particular, would include firefighting costs on federal lands, which exceeded $240 million in New Mexico in 2012 alone.
Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who opposes state takeover of federal public lands, told reporters, “The states would have no choice but to auction off the best public lands to cover costs. That would devastate our outdoor traditions like hunting and fishing as well as the 68,000 jobs associated without door recreation in New Mexico. These lands belong to all of us, and it is imperative that we keep it that way.”
Three bills were introduced during the 2015 New Mexico state legislative session that promoted the transfer of federal public lands to the state. More than 250 hunters and anglers rallied at the capitol to make a statement against this legislation, and local sportsmen’s groups worked with state legislators to put a stop to these misguided proposals. In the end, a bipartisan group of lawmakers helped to defeat these bills.
Sportsmen should be proud of this successful effort to stop public-land seizure bills in New Mexico, and we all must remain vigilant to prevent future proposals from gaining traction in the Land of Enchantment.
Stay tuned. In the rest of this 10-part series, we’ll continue to cover some of America’s finest hunting and fishing destinations that could be permanently seized from the public if politicians have their way.