Battle for beauty: the future of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

Organ Mountains (KFOX14)

President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to review all the national monument designations made by other presidents over the past 20 years that involve 100,000 acres or more. The review could mean that President Obama's proclamation creating the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument could be rescinded or the monument could be reduced in size.

The possibility of losing some of the history that these mountain ranges represent upsets Ben Gabriel, the executive director of the Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. "The Camino Real meets the West is what we often say, and truly, we have places where Billy the Kid roamed and Geronimo's cave,” Gabriel said. “We have World War II bombing sites and thousands of pictographs and petroglyphs that are in the Organs, the Potrillos and the Las Uvas, the mountain ranges that surround our community."

Three years ago, President Barack Obama created the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument by executive order. For more than a century, American presidents have enjoyed the prerogative of preserving federal land that's considered to have significant historic, cultural or scientific value. In this case, theThe Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument covers five mountain ranges and more than 496,000 acres of federal land in Dona Ana County. Gabriel said, "The national monument designation simply gives it another tier to make sure this landscape that surrounds our community is here for future generations."

The national monument designation has taken interest in these mountain ranges to another level. The Drippings Springs and Aguirre Springs recreational areas have been popular with hikers, bikers and campers for decades. But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reports that since President Obama's national monument proclamation, the number of visitors has more than doubled. “We were one of the top 10 places in the United States named by Lonely Planet to visit, and I think that's a significant piece,” Gabriel said, “we saw the L.A. Times do an article on the tourism here. So, we've seen that by having the national monument designation here in Las Cruces, it puts us on the map as a tourist designation."

At the Dripping Springs Visitors Center, they have a couple of maps on which visitors can stick colored pins in to show where they came from. Every single state in the map of the United States has pins it, while on the global map, every continent except Antarctica is represented, including places as far away as Siberia and above the Arctic Circle. All the new visitors translate to millions of dollars for Dona Ana County's economy.

Despite that, there's still strong opposition to the size of this new national monument from local ranchers and from Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, who represents the monument. Just weeks after Trump was elected president, Pearce called on him to review the size and scope of this and other national monuments. In April, the President obliged when he ordered the Interior Department review.

U.S. Rep. Pearce believes the monument should only include the Organ Mountains, about 55,000 acres. Pearce said he “tried to balance the difference between the beauty we want to preserve and the economic development for the surrounding area outside Las Cruces. All we have is agriculture, mostly ranching, some farming. And if we're not conscious of that, then we hurt the economy."

Pearce said the Antiquities Act requires that a president designate the smallest possible footprint in order to achieve the desired environmental preservation. He believes President Obama ignored that part of the law. New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall disagrees. "Well, first of all, we looked at this for 10 years, we looked at it thoroughly.” Sen. Udall said. “This was the smallest possible footprint we could have in order to create a monument that would really do justice to the Antiquities Act."

Sen. Udall also said that all the traditional uses of this land, which was already under federal control, were allowed to continue under the national monument proclamation, and that includes grazing livestock. "Specifically, what we did is do what you do in protections,” Sen Udall said, “we included grazing, and grazing is allowed. It's specifically in the bill. So we're not interfering with that.” But Rep. Pearce countered, "It's the ranchers that tell me increasingly tight restrictions, even though it's technically permitted, will end up causing them not to be able to ranch. So, they've been the opponents, of even initially, of designating a monument at all. It's the reason I said we need to come to some compromise, and the compromise would be the small footprint."

Udall also said that the Obama Administration consulted with the U.S. Border Patrol to ensure its agents had adequate access to do their job. Gabriel calls it the border buffer zone. "There's actually a 5-mile buffer between the Mexican border and the national monument and that really is a corridor that allows the Border Patrol to do the exercises and the activities that they need to ensure that we have a safe community," Gabriel said. However, Pearce said that along the border's remote wilderness, it would be easy for smugglers and others to get past the buffer zone, and into the national monument's safe haven.

Pearce said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told him personally, he plans to visit the New Mexico national monuments that are under review during the month of July, but his office still hasn't announced a schedule for the visit.

The U.S. Department of the Interior deadline for the public to comment on what should happen with the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is Monday, July 10.

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