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Federal Court Says No to Highway in the Heart of the Wilderness

Wilderness Study Area protected from offroad vehicles
March 20, 2003
Albuquerque, NM — 
An unusual coalition of conservation groups and the Bureau of Land Management claimed victory today when a federal court judge in New Mexico issued a ruling that prevents a four-wheel drive club from turning a trail in a proposed wilderness area north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, into a public highway for a select few dirt bikes and off-road vehicles.

The ruling came in response to motions filed by Bureau of Land Management, and Earthjustice on behalf of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society. Conservationists have been fighting for decades to protect the Robledo Mountains Wilderness Study Area in southern New Mexico.

"We are very pleased with this decision. By being part of this suit and working with the BLM, our message is simply that we are defending our wildest public lands from the vandalism that comes with irresponsible and misguided off-road vehicle use," said New Mexico Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Jim Scarantino.

The four-wheel drive club brought the suit to keep open a trail in the heart of the Robledo Mountains proposed wilderness, which the BLM closed because increased off-road vehicle abuse was degrading the wild character and native vegetation of the area. The club claimed that the trails should be kept open under the 100 plus year old highway law known as R.S. 2477, which was repealed in 1976. The court rejected the club's claims because the statute of limitations for contesting the creation of the WSA had expired years before the suit was brought before the court.

Pam Eaton, Director of The Wilderness Society's Four Corners Region, agreed. "We are happy that the court rejected this attempt to use an old loophole to claim a highway where none ever existed through this wild desert. It sends a message that these kinds of legal shenanigans are a dead end."

The Robledo Mountains WSA contains high limestone peaks and vistas, deep canyons, caves, streams, significant prehistoric archeological sites, and habitat for bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and mule deer. These are true desert mountains, where yucca stalks sometimes rival the height of trees.

Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski said, "This case sets an important precedent, which will serve all Americans who believe that management of our last, best, wild country should be balanced, and not skewed to special interests."

Scarantino also praised local Bureau of Land Management officials who made the decision to close the trail to off-road vehicle use, and fought the four-wheel club in court. "The BLM made a great decision to protect this part of the Robledos and simply refused to back down. That is important for the future of our wildest public lands in New Mexico."

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Contact:
Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice-303-623-9466, cell 303-641-3149
Stephen Capra, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, 505-843-8696, Cell 301-4558
Pam Eaton, The Wilderness Society 303-650-5818, ext. 103