Opinion: Public lands package includes major Four Corners wins

Martin Heinrich
U.S. Senator, D-NM
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich

Living in a state that proudly calls itself the Land of Enchantment, I know how much our public lands mean to New Mexicans. These are the places where generations of families have gone to explore our natural wonders, hunt and fish, and learn about our rich history and culture. They also fuel a thriving outdoor recreation economy that supports nearly 100,000 jobs in our state.

I have long believed that we can do more to promote our state’s rich landscapes and create new outdoor recreation opportunities – both to attract visitors and to improve our own quality of life. That's why I am so proud that Congress passed and the president just signed a landmark bipartisan public lands package that includes legislation I’ve championed to protect our public lands, create new outdoor recreation opportunities, and build on the success of our nation's most effective conservation programs.

The new law establishes 13 new wilderness areas in New Mexico, including the brand-new Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness near Nageezi, just south of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. The new wilderness area’s colorfully eroded badlands will attract hikers looking to admire strange rock formations, explore the sites of major dinosaur fossil discoveries and camp under the stars.

The bill also includes a 2,250-acre addition to the nearby Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, which already draws visitors looking to hike through otherworldly sandstone rock landscapes.

These new protected wilderness areas will provide momentum to Farmington's Outdoor Recreation Industry Initiative, which is working to attract new businesses and create new jobs that take advantage of the outdoor activities available on the rivers, lakes, trails, and canyons in San Juan County. I have supported this effort because growing the outdoor recreation industry is one of the best opportunities we have to diversify the local economy. 

We also permanently reauthorized one of America's most successful conservation programs: the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Over the last half century, LWCF has protected iconic landscapes in New Mexico, like the Valles Caldera and the Rio Grande del Norte, without costing taxpayers a single dime. In Farmington, LWCF was essential in building the Berg and Animas Parks Trail System. It has also provided funds to local communities like Bloomfield and Aztec to build local parks and ballfields. Now Congress will no longer have to fight year after year to renew this clearly successful program.

The public lands package also includes my bipartisan bill, the Every Kid Outdoors Act, which will allow every fourth-grader in America to visit our nation's parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and public lands free of charge – and bring their families along with them. I am so excited that we are encouraging a new generation of kids to explore the natural and cultural history on display in our parks, forests, and monuments.

In a frustrating political time in Washington, when it can be difficult to find any areas of agreement, I am so pleased that we have found a way forward on these important bills.

And I am so thankful to all the New Mexicans who played a role in getting these conservation victories over the finish line. I have no doubt that these measures will go a long way toward ensuring that the outdoor places in San Juan County and all across New Mexico will be protected for future generations to enjoy.