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Our Largest Public Lands Rally Leads to Pulling of Bad Bill

by Susan Torres

The end of January brought a flurry of activity at the State Legislature, and as our staff ran back and forth between the Roundhouse and our office in Santa Fe, the cold wind was unrelenting. With our annual Public Lands Rally coming up, the weather persisted in the back of our minds. Would the cold drive people away? Would people feel “rally’d out” after other successful protests throughout the month?

It turns out, our fears were unfounded. February 1, 2017, was a beautiful, sunny day in Santa Fe. Hundreds of concerned New Mexicans had already gathered at the Roundhouse by 11 am. We had been reaching out to communities throughout New Mexico, as well as the news media, for months to get the word out about the rally but we were still blown away by the size of the crowd – our biggest ever at over 500!

Maybe this year was so successful because the threats to our public lands are imminent. At the time of the rally there were a number of bills at the state and federal level threatening to sell off millions of acres of public lands. One of the most publicized was federal bill HR 621, introduced by Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, which would have sold off 3.3 million acres in 10 Western states, including 1 million acres in New Mexico. On the state level, lots of rally goers were concerned about Senate Bill 182, which called for the federal government to transfer subsurface mineral rights under private lands to the State Land Office. The bill could have set a very dangerous precedent for land transfer proponents, and also continued to tie our state’s economy to an unreliable revenue stream.

With these bad bills looming in the background, New Mexicans were excited to rally for the public lands that belong to all Americans.

People came armed with signs, impressive knowledge about the issues, and a desire to be heard, and loudly, by their elected officials. With such a large group fired up and ready to go, we kicked the rally off with a march to the State Land Office to oppose attempts to take our land and resources, like SB 182 would have. The state land commissioner seemed surprised to have his press conference interrupted by hundreds of people demanding that New Mexicans wanted to keep public lands in public hands.

Once the crowd made it’s way back to the Roundhouse, students from the Pueblo Pathways Project at the Santa Fe Indian School performed a ceremonial dance.

Once the crowd made it’s way back to the Roundhouse, students from the Pueblo Pathways Project at the Santa Fe Indian School performed a ceremonial dance. The Pueblo Pathways Project – or P3 – is an amazing program run by Tony Dorame that connects Native youth from across New Mexico with the outdoors and their shared cultural heritage. The students are encouraged to become leaders in the school, hunt and fish on public lands as much as possible, and pursue careers in the outdoors. The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is proud of the relationships it’s developed with students in the program and to have watched some of these young members mature and become outspoken proponents of public lands in the past few years.

After the dance, our Southern NM Outreach Coordinator Gabe Vasquez discussed his Nuestra Tierra program with the crowd, which aims to connect Latino youth with the outdoors and teach them about their public lands heritage. He showed up with a van full of public lands advocates from Southern New Mexico from every walk of life. He introduced Orlando Antonio Carrillo-Jimenez, a mariachi singer from La Mesa to sing “This Land is Your Land” with the crowd, which everyone in attendance gamely joined him in.20170201_120452

As everyone moved into theRoundhouse for the speaking portion of the day, the diversity of the group really became noticeable. There were young people and old people, men and women, people in camo, people in pink, and members of all races. It was amazing standing in the Rotunda and looking out on a representative face of New Mexico’s culture and people.

Our speakers came from all walks of New Mexico life: Julian Gonzalez Jr., a veteran and land grant permittee; Colleen Payne, a hunter and the executive director of the Mule Deer Foundation; students from the Pueblo Pathways Project and the program’s leader Tony Dorame; representatives from Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich’s office; Bruce Wilder a pastor in Albuquerque; legislators William McCamley, Bill Soules, Nathan Small, Jeff Steinborn, Angelica Rubio, and Brian Egolf; and wrapping it up was Jeff Swanson, a former Army chaplain, rancher, and co-founder of the southern New Mexico Public Lands Alliance.

Our message was heard loud and clear as legislator after legislator came out of committee to address the crowd. Representative Angelica Rubio from Las Cruces gave a rousing defense of public lands and our state’s shared history, stating “our lands are part of our heritage and our heritage is not for sale.” Senator Bill Soules also encouraged the crowd to speak to their legislators and make it clear that they will not stand for any elected official who will sell off our American public lands, saying it’s a matter of holding up our Constitution.

One thing was clear from every speaker: public lands mean more than just a place to go outside. Our public lands provide New Mexicans with a lifestyle, a way to honor our traditions, a way to connect with our kids, a way to provide for our families, and a way to heal. One of the most moving speeches came from veteran Julian Gonzalez when he spoke about how public lands helped him to heal after what he had seen in the combat zone. He mentioned losing friends to suicide, but one of the few things that helped them in their struggles was the ability to spend time fishing on public lands. Getting outside can help heal those who have served our country in more ways than one.

Colleen Payne, executive director of the Mule Deer Foundation, discussed how she has “filled [her] freezer with meat for 20 years, and [she knows] where [her] food comes from – it comes from public lands.” By encouraging a new generation of women to hunt, she’s spreading the word about the importance of getting outside on public lands, and using them in a sustainable way.

As the rally winded down and people began to disperse, it was encouraging to hear attendees follow up on how they could stay involved. Many questioned, “what’s next?” In his closing remarks, Vene Klasen encouraged everyone to go speak with their legislators, county commissioners, congressional delegates and the governor’s office and tell them that public lands matter and everyone at the rally that day wanted them protected. He also encouraged everyone to call ten of their friends that lived in other states to encourage them to reach out to their elected officials.

Tangible results are not always evident after a rally – even one with as many attendees as this time around. But this year was different. In the early morning the day after our rally – and two days after a rally in Montana – Representative Chaffetz announced he was pulling HR 621 citing opposition from sportsmen and women! With our strong showing for public lands in New Mexico, our voices were heard and a bad bill got pulled. This was an amazing example of the importance of coming together and the power of civic engagement.

The rally was just one step, one day, in a longer battle. Attacks on our public lands will continue, but thanks to one special day, we know that New Mexicans united for our public lands can have a tremendous impact.

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of the Outdoor Reporter.