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Edited by: John Stewart

The Wildlands Project Comes to Hidalgo County - Part 1

by: Judy Keeler

The Sky Island Alliance, Nature Conservancy, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and Wildlands Project affiliation is similar to an intricate puzzle. With your permission, I'll try to explain the organizations and individuals involved in this collaborative effort - one piece at a time.

Anticipating an unusually festive 4th of July, my family and I decided to make the annual trek across, or rather around, the Peloncillo Mountains in Southwest New Mexico to our favorite independence celebration in Rodeo, New Mexico.

Rodeo was established in 1902 when the EP&SW railroad extended its line from Douglas, Arizona to Antelope Pass in the Peloncillo Mountains. Its location soon became an important shipping point for livestock, as indicated by the Spanish translation of its name, which means "roundup". Located on US 80 about 33 miles south of I-10, just east of the beautiful Chiricahua Mountains and Portal, Arizona, a post office was established in 1903.

Like many rural communities today, Rodeo consists of a cluster of homes in the town site with a store, several art galleries, a real estate office, garages, post office and local pub. Dotting the surrounding landscape are several subdivisions, ranches and farms.

A typical rural community, Rodeo embraces its visitors with both, respect, and suspicion. Having grown up in a small town, I understand their culture and concerns.

It was a surprise, therefore, when I viewed some participants carrying a Sky Island banner in Rodeo's Fourth of July parade. Other Sky Islanders carried signs depicting the Sierra Madres, Peloncillos, Chiricahua, and Rocky Mountain ranges. Still others marched under a replication of the mountain chains that was reminiscent of the paper dragons seen in Mardi Gras parades. A few others marched in the black attire usually associated with Earth Firsters!

As I watched the Sky Island participants, I wondered how many of the marchers, much less the local residents, were familiar with the Sky Island concept, who birthed the movement and its agenda.

I have not always been a private property activist. In fact, it was not out of choice, but of necessity, I started my trek. It began when The Nature Conservancy (TNC) bought the Gray Ranch.

My first face to face encounter with TNC activities occurred when they arranged for about 100 federal, state, and non-government employees from around the U.S. to visit the Bootheel of New Mexico for an on-the-ground workshop. Their intent was to field test, by inventorying our area, color coded satellite maps. They believed in this way they could verify the actual vegetation type found on a particular site by associating it with a particular color on the map.

The only problem, they forgot to contact the adjoining landowners and inform them their forces would be accessing their private properties.

Our personal encounter began when we saw vehicle tracks traveling around a locked gate on our private property. Not knowing what we would find, we followed the tracks to their destination. There we came across a BLM pickup with magnetic Nature Conservancy stickers covering the BLM name and logo. Additionally, two BLM employees were enjoying their lunch in a shaded area of our ranch.

Obviously startled by our approach, my husband lost no time informing them they were enjoying their lunch on private property. If their intent was to access the BLM lands, he continued, they would need a horse because the existing roads were not passable in a vehicle. The employees explained their instructions were to do an on-the-ground inventory of the vegetation and wildlife found in our area, and referred us to their leader at the Howe Camp on the Gray Ranch.

During the course of the conversation, they reluctantly showed us an inventory sheet they were filling out for The Nature Conservancy. The sheet listed a number of plants and wildlife they were to check if observed.

What did it all mean? Unfamiliar with TNC, we had no hint what was transpiring in our area.

(To Be Continued)

Judy Keeler, rancher and activist!

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