LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP)--The absence of the Sabinoso wildlands in eastern San Miguel County from most road maps is perhaps fitting given the forlornness of its hulking mesas and dry streambeds during these long, dusty days of summer.

It exists near where the high-desert plains along N.M. 104 east of Las Vegas abruptly sink and form sandstone canyons more than 1,000 feet deep.

Ranchers once called this place home, as evidenced by abandoned homesteads still filled with such items as a rickety rocking chair and a yellowing copy of "Casper, the Friendly Ghost."

Largely untrammeled by man, the Sabinoso is now close to being kept that way by the federal government. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation designating 17,638 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management as a federally protected wilderness. The bill must now be approved by the Senate and signed by the president.

"Sabinoso is a pretty spectacular area," said Nathan Newcomer of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, which has been lobbying to protect Sabinoso for about three years. Newcomer said the area is one of New Mexico's last intact Great Plains ecosystems.

A wilderness designation would put Sabinoso off-limits to the kind of energy development, off-road vehicles and other activities seen across much of the West, while offering solitude to outdoors enthusiasts who trek in by horseback or foot.

Former U.S. Sen. Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico was a driving force behind the 1964 Wilderness Act, which aimed to protect areas where the natural world is unhindered and "man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Four federal agencies manage more than 105 million acres of wilderness, or nearly 5 percent of the United States, according to The Wilderness Society.

In the 1970s, BLM began identifying holdings that might be suitable for wilderness designation. For years Sabinoso has been one such "wilderness study area." This year's legislation, sponsored by Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., would move Sabinoso from limbo to wilderness for perpetuity.

"Sabinoso is more than an incredibly beautiful patch of land, it is a thriving ecosystem and a piece of New Mexico history," Udall said. "Visitors to the area will find horses, wild turkeys and other birds most people never get a chance to see. They will also find homesteads that go back generations and pristine wilderness that still looks like it did when settlers first came to this part of North America."

The House passed Udall's legislation unanimously. A spokesman for Rep. Steve Pearce, a southern New Mexico Republican and Udall's opponent for this year's U.S. Senate race, said Pearce "did not object to the bill."

Bounded by private ranches, the Sabinoso study area about 40 miles east of Las Vegas is essentially unreachable by the public. Even getting close to the area requires a long, bumpy ride over private two-track roads, through several gates and past cattle that frequently block the way.

The dirt road stretches for several miles before a turn-of-the-last-century homestead with a metal roof and broken glass windows marks about as far as you can go on four wheels. It's another couple miles or so on horseback or foot to reach the proposed wilderness.

"Having a wilderness area doesn't mean people have to (be able to) get here," said BLM's Taos field manager, Sam DesGeorges, who saddled up a few government horses last week for a tour up Sabinoso's canyons. Still, BLM is presently looking at a few locations where it could establish a right-of-way and trail head.

The tour followed a faint, stony trail that might have been used for mineral exploration some time ago. It's pretty much the only sign of modernity for miles around.

Federal land need not be entirely pristine or untouched to qualify for a wilderness designation. Rather, the law defines wilderness as an undeveloped area "retaining its primeval character and influence" and which "generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable."

The designation would grandfather in grazing rights of 12 permittees who hold leases to graze up to 1,700 head of cattle each year. But wilderness would bar other development, such as oil and gas exploration, as well as motorized vehicles.

BLM could build some trails, but DesGeorges said the public might prefer to experience the area the way he did, through exploration.

Six canyons stained buff, red and tan offer ideal terrain for hikers, horseback riders, photographers, geologists and hunters.

A diversity of habitats, from the heavy woodlands up high to the willows and cottonwoods along the rivers down below, support a variety of birds like the red-tailed hawk and wildlife including mule deer and bobcats.

But on a scorching July morning, the only signs of life were deer and bear scat along the trail and a couple of rabbits hunkered beneath shady rocks. And when the locusts fell silent and the wind rustling the ponderosa momentarily paused, a stillness took over where you could almost hear yourself sweat.

A 6,150-foot-high mesa bisects the land, and the ride up is a steep, rocky, bushwhacking affair up a trail thick with juniper and pinon. Lagartija Creek was bone dry on one side of the mesa, while on the other, a stream coursing through the 1,000-foot-deep Canon Largo trickled toward the Canadian River.

Newcomer said a broad alliance of ranchers, environmental groups and local and state lawmakers support protecting Sabinoso.

"Wilderness," he said, "is something all New Mexicans have a stake in."

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