Use the Land With Love and Respect

As a child who fished, camped and hiked all over the Land of Enchantment, I learned early on that there’s nothing more awe-inspiring than watching a herd of elk cross the Valles Caldera or bighorn sheep scale the rugged cliffs of the Rio Grande Gorge or pronghorn bound across the plains. I still feel this way today. New Mexico’s wildlife is not just an integral part of what we do — whether it’s hunting, fishing, bird watching or camping. It’s part of who we are. Our wildlife is fundamental to our state’s history, culture and identity.

A recent poll conducted by the National Wildlife Federation showed that New Mexicans overwhelmingly support increased protections for wildlife corridors and habitat. By allowing species to migrate, wildlife corridors are key to the survival of elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep as they search for food and adjust to climate change. But too often, these routes are impeded by roads, fences or development putting whole herds and species at risk. The poll found that a whopping 84 percent of New Mexicans want to see increased protections for these migration routes. This support comes from people of all ages, political affiliations, ethnic and economic backgrounds as well as rural and urban areas.

The good news is there are commonsense solutions that can ensure we live alongside wildlife for generations to come. And New Mexicans support those solutions: 87 percent want more overpasses or underpasses built for wildlife, 73 percent want to prevent oil and gas development in known migration areas, and 94 percent want forest planners at the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests to protect wildlife corridors.

Of course, the importance of wildlife corridors is not new to New Mexico. For thousands of years, New Mexicans have shared this landscape and had great respect and understanding of these pathways. In fact, a common game trail later became a Pueblo footpath that ultimately evolved into the famed La Bajada passage on the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the trade route that stretched from Mexico City to Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. Nearby, the La Cieneguilla petroglyphs depict ancient people alongside elk, deer and birds, reminding us of the timeless interconnectedness of New Mexico’s land, water, wildlife and culture.

We have a moral and ethical duty to safeguard our wildlife for future generations. Protecting migration corridors is one of the key solutions needed to meet that obligation.

This year, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took a huge and important step by signing into law the Wildlife Corridors Act. This first-of-its-kind legislation instructs the state to develop — in consultation with Native tribes — a wildlife migration plan that will reduce habitat fragmentation and promote landscape connectivity. The law also protects the lives of New Mexicans by designing projects to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions.

The public also has an important opportunity to get involved when managers at Santa Fe and Carson National Forests release final drafts of their forest plans next month. New Mexicans will need to speak up to ensure adequate steps are taken to protect wildlife corridors in these plans, which last decades.

Over the centuries, New Mexicans have learned the importance of sharing the land with wildlife and preserving nature’s balance. Now more than ever, we must take steps to ensure this continues. As the former Carson Forest superintendent and founder of the Gila Wilderness Aldo Leopold reminds us: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

The Rev. Andrew Black is the National Wildlife Federation’s public lands field director and a minister at First Presbyterian Church Santa Fe.

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