Nearly two dozen members of a New Mexico non-profit, three geologists, sundry guests and one reporter bowed their heads to 30-knot winds last Saturday to hike up 6,272-foot Chupadera Peak in central New Mexico's Chihuahuan desert. The motley band was celebrating the unique purchase and donation of this $62,000 rock.
The cacti and cresote covered mountain rises abruptly on the western side of the Rio Grande floodplain. As part of the Chupadera Mountains, it provides both high elevation habitat for songbirds and serves as a natural wall protecting the wetland stopover home for more than 50,000 wintering birds.
A birding group called "Friends of the Bosque" will give this 140-acre chunk of mountain to Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a roughly 57,000-acre area of protected land in New Mexico. The refuge will in turn ask Congress to designate the land as wilderness. Once the designation sticks, an act of Congress would be needed to allow future development here.
"It will be the highest point on the refuge and give great panoramic views," said refuge manager Tom Melanson. "And there's not a chance of a house being stuck up on it."
Private groups have donated more than 700,000 acres of the almost 100 million acres in the National Wildlife Refuge system, but rarely is that land then designated as wilderness. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could only name one other recent gift of private land outside a refuge that became wilderness (Alaska in 2000). The donation plus designation duo is so rare, organizations don't officially track them.
The "Friends of the Bosque" took advantage of a little-exercised rule in Section Six of The Wilderness Act that allows privately donated lands adjacent to federal wilderness areas to be turned into wilderness. In all other cases, Congress must pass a law that is signed by the president to grant federal lands wilderness status, a lengthy process that needs a great deal of public support.
Two conditions need to be met for the unusual designation to pass muster. "The land has to be donated and the land included in the donation has to be wild," said Chuck Clusen, the director of National Parks and Alaska Projects for NRDC. "With land around a lot of refuges, that's just not the case."
The Wilderness Act of 1964 described wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." It differs from other federal lands, in that it is to be kept as primitive as possible, without the construction of permanent roads or camps. "It's the strongest form of protection," said Clusen.
Some 270 donors gave to the organization so the land could be added to complete a hiking trail to the peak and buffer the refuge's western front. A private company is selling adjacent land for ranchettes, and the "Friends of the Bosque" wanted to make sure that never happened on Chupadera Peak.
After the refuge formally accepts the land, Melanson will send a letter to Congress, which would then have 60 days to reject to the designation. An unlikely occurrence, he said.
The hikers covered nine and a half miles and rested in a natural amphitheatre of burgundy spires. The refuge's outdoor recreation manager Shawn Gillette spoke about hopes that the new land will bring in local youngsters who increasingly spend their time playing video games and watching TV. "Part of our mission is to reverse that trend," said Gillette. "We're fighting a no child left inside battle."
The hikers bottlenecked a bit at the gate installed into the barbwire fence that formerly kept people from the summit. After a bit more climbing and a couple jaunts to retrieve blown off hats, they reached the peak.
All had different reasons for contributing to the purchase.
"We were really interested in what's growing up here," said Jim Passmore of the New Mexico Cactus and Succulent Society. While pointing out species of cholla and prickly pear, he said his organization purchased an acre for $450.
"Now that I've been up here I can see it's totally worth it," said $1,000-donor Joan Bacon. "Any time we can preserve wilderness for future generations it's important, because so much is subdivided and taken out of wilderness settings."
After posing for pictures at the top, everyone was in a hurry to get back down to the bottomlands where tens of thousands of wintering snow geese and sandhill cranes fly in to roost at sunset.
At the trailhead, 81-year-old founding member of "Friends of the Bosque" John Bertrand was waiting to shuttle people so they could see the birds. When he first began the organization 15 years ago there were 25 members. Now there are more than a thousand.
Other "Friends" groups have increased from a couple dozen 10 years ago to more than 220 in 2007. "It's immeasurable the benefits the 'Friends' groups bring," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Jose Viramontes. "At Bosque, the number of volunteers outnumbers the number of workers."
As dusk set over the wetlands, people stood in gaggles on platforms, in the mud, and amongst bushes, with some clad in camouflage adjusting cameras. The overhead thump of thousands of wings and the gurgled call of the sandhills spurred the bird buffs to set their frames against the clean silhouette of the Chupadera Mountains.
Story and photos by Joe Spring. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2007. The story was added to MNN.com.