In the early 1920s, motorcars were invading remote corners of the national forests. Old-time rangers feared that soon there would be nowhere to go on foot or horseback without the smell of what one called “Ford dust.” That one was a man named Aldo Leopold, who had started as a ranger in 1909 and now was in the Albuquerque regional office of the U.S. Forest Service. By talking with other concerned foresters, he worked out a way to keep the best of the backcountry roadless and undeveloped by mapping and designating big swaths of rugged lands as “Wilderness Areas.” In 1924, the Southwest Regional Forester acted on Leopold’s idea by designating almost one million acres of the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico as the Gila Wilderness Area—the first Wilderness Area in the world. From that enlightened step forward, the U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System has grown to over 107 million acres, and Aldo Leopold has rightly become known as the “Father of Wilderness Areas.”
Leopold is well known today to conservationists. Less well known are other New Mexicans who left their mark on Wilderness in New Mexico and nationwide. Among them is Senator Clinton P. Anderson, the leading champion and floor manager for the 1964 Wilderness Act in the U.S. Senate. Another is Milo Conrad of the New Mexico Mountain Club and founder of the La Luz Trail Run. Milo called New Mexico wilderness lovers together in 1969 to work for new Wilderness Areas in the state. He thereby helped lead the way to statewide wilderness protection clubs throughout the United States and to the Forest Service’s roadless area inventories and reviews (RARE) in the 1970s.
Now comes the time to acknowledge and praise another great wilderness conservationist from New Mexico: Stephen Capra. Stephen has been the voice and the face of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance from nearly our beginning, first as communications director and then as long-serving executive director. I’ve long believed, though, that Stephen was not just a leader of wilderness protection in New Mexico but was—and is—a wilderness defender of national importance. Today, when so many heads of conservation groups are more interested in organizational growth than in the health and well-being of wild things, Stephen stands out nationally as a conservationist with love and passion for wild things. In this, he ties back to Aldo Leopold, who wrote in his classic 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.”
Stephen Capra has inspired and directed the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance as one with Aldo Leopold as a “cannot.” Wherever his true grit takes him next, we in NM Wild can be sure that Stephen Capra will be fighting for wild things and showing the national conservation movement that the path that Leopold blazed and trod is still the path we must follow.
Visit New Mexico Wilderness Alliance’s website here.