By Michael Coleman / Journal Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Wednesday will designate 496,000 acres of federal land in five south-central New Mexico mountain ranges as a national monument, bypassing Congress to ensure the rugged but scenic country is protected for future generations.
The White House announcement on Monday was the culmination of more than a decade of grass-roots activism aimed at securing federal protections in the five ranges surrounding Las Cruces. The land, owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management, is home to ancient petroglyphs and lava flows, rare plants and animals, and vast recreational and hunting areas.
“On Wednesday, President Obama will host an event at the Department of the Interior, where he will sign a proclamation establishing the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in south-central New Mexico,” the White House said in a statement provided to the Journal. “By establishing the monument, the president will permanently protect nearly 500,000 acres to preserve the prehistoric, historic and scientific values of the area for the benefit of all Americans.”
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell plans to travel to the Las Cruces area on Friday to help the community celebrate the monument designation.
Obama’s planned announcement marks the second national monument he has designated in New Mexico. He established the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in March 2013.
The president’s decision to protect the southern New Mexico mountain country comes on the heels of legislation that Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, introduced in December.
“This (White House announcement) was a long time coming and really an incredible vindication of all of the efforts that so many local community leaders have put on for over a decade now,” Heinrich said in a Journal interview.
Critics of such far-reaching conservation efforts in the region have questioned whether it would preserve access to hunting and grazing areas, or interfere with law enforcement efforts along the Mexican border.
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., has proposed legislation that would provide monument protection to 58,500 acres of the Organ Mountains. On Monday, Pearce told the Journal he was disappointed by the White House announcement.
“It’s pretty typical of what the president is doing now,” Pearce said, referring to Obama’s use of executive orders that circumvent the need for congressional approval. “It bypasses the will of the people. It’s not going to be good for the county and it will depress the economy over the long term and make it harder for the rural, New Mexico way of life to continue.”
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s office did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment on the White House announcement Monday.
Udall said the president’s designation will dramatically enhance southern New Mexico’s national and international profile.
“The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument will put the unique and spectacular desert landscapes of southern New Mexico on recreation maps around the world, attracting tourists to the region, creating jobs and bringing in millions of dollars in tourism revenue,” Udall said.
The White House cited an independent study by BBC Research & Consulting that estimated that the new national monument could generate $7.4 million per year in additional economic activity from new visitors and business opportunities “while preserving access for sportsmen, ranchers and recreational users.” Pearce said he was skeptical of such projections.
Heinrich said he had not seen the official White House’s monument proclamation and its associated maps, but he expected them to closely resemble the proposal set forth in the Heinrich-Udall legislation.
“It sounds like it is very similar – at least at first blush,” Heinrich said.
The Heinrich-Udall bill would have set aside 498,815 acres as part of a national monument, established eight wilderness areas and conserved land in an area stretching across the Organ, Doña Ana, Potrillo, Robledo and Uvas mountains.
Obama’s executive order would not impose the wilderness areas included in the Udall-Heinrich bill. Only Congress can establish such wilderness areas, which carry more restrictive rules for use. Heinrich said “there are a handful of things that will still have to be addressed legislatively,” including any new wilderness areas or changes to border enforcement and management policies. For now, existing federal border enforcement policies will remain unchanged in the area.
“I’m sure the delegation will continue to work on those things,” Heinrich said. “Once an area has been recognized as a national monument and its profile is raised in this way, I think it makes it easier on the legislative front but, as you know, nothing is easy in Washington these days.”
The area proposed for protection by Obama is home to game animals, such as pronghorn sheep and deer, as well as rare plants, some of which, such as the Organ Mountains pincushion cactus, are found nowhere else in the world.
John Cornell, a staffer with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and president of the Doña Ana County Associated Sportsmen, said the monument area provides excellent hunting grounds for quail, dove, antelope, mule deer and – in wet years – waterfowl. The White House has invited Cornell to Washington for the Wednesday designation ceremony.
“It’s a huge day for sportsmen in New Mexico,” Cornell said, adding that it is a place “where our grandkids will be able to go.”
“We’ll be assured that future generations will have these places and good hunting grounds,” Cornell added.
Ranchers in Doña Ana County, including Dudley Williams, have opposed the creation of a large national monument in the area. They say the monument designation could complicate the already strict rules governing use of federal lands – and make ranching tougher.
“It’s a whole travesty of justice,” Williams said.
Asked what is at stake for him personally, Williams said: “How about several million dollars’ worth of investment and my life’s work? He (Obama) is stealing the rights of all the citizens of New Mexico.”
Several local ranchers have supported Pearce’s monument proposal with a much smaller footprint but opposed the prospect of a presidential declaration.
Heinrich said the bulk of the credit for the White House decision should go to the people of Doña Ana County.
“They did an amazing job,” he said. “To have any administration and the White House recognize those grass roots efforts is really a testimony to how hard they worked on this and how well they worked on it.”
Journal staff writer Lauren Villagran contributed to this report
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