Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich: Monument will preserve lands for future generations

Las-Cruces-Sun-NewsLas Cruces Sun-News
Guest column by U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich

The Organ Mountains and surrounding area form a beautiful and iconic backdrop for Las Cruces and are beloved by New Mexicans who visit Doña Ana County to hunt, picnic, hike, and explore. This month, we were proud to introduce legislation to ensure that future generations of New Mexicans can continue those traditions, while boosting tourism and recreation opportunities.

Our Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act would designate the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, putting a star on recreation maps around the world, highlighting the area’s unique culture and history, and drawing tourists and outdoor enthusiasts. The most recent study estimates that a national monument designation would generate $7.4 million in new economic activity every year.

There’s a reason a recent survey found that 83 percent of people in Doña Ana County support the creation of a monument. The biologically and culturally rich terrain stretches from the granite peaks of the Organ Mountains, to the cinder cones, lava flows, and increasingly rare grasslands of the Potrillo Mountains, and from the caves, limestone cliffs, and winding canyons of the Robledos to the Uvas Mountains and the secluded Broad Canyon.

These landscapes define southern New Mexico. The protected habitat for deer, quail and javelina guarantees some of the best hunting in the state. The canyons are home to species of birds, cacti, daisies, grasshoppers and other plants and animals, some found nowhere else in the world. And the region has been important throughout history — Billy the Kid and Geronimo hid in these hills, and World War II soldiers and astronauts from the Apollo space mission trained here.

Within the proposed national monument, eight wilderness areas would be guaranteed permanent protection. The monument would continue to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management, as it is today. And the BLM would be directed to ensure that grazing continues under the exact same rules as it does today, while the state would continue to manage wildlife and game within the monument. We’ve written the legislation to require that ranchers can continue to use all existing roads necessary to access stock improvements, including all roads leading to water troughs, pipelines and corrals. And the wilderness provisions allow primary roads to remain open so that the public can continue to use them, ensuring that you are never more than four miles from a road within the wilderness areas.

First introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman, the current bill is the result of years of work. It reflects the help and comments of ranchers, nearby communities, stakeholders, recreation groups and area businesses, and other stakeholders, as well as state agencies, White Sands Missile Range, Fort Bliss and the U.S. Border Patrol.

We want to thank everyone who has provided insight; the proposal is better for it. For example, our bill increases the operational flexibility of Border Patrol beyond existing law, and creates new opportunities for expanded surveillance, pursuit and patrol. By releasing 30,000 acres from existing wilderness study area designation, the bill increases the current 0.3 -mile buffer between the Mexican border and protected lands to a full five-mile buffer. It also designates an east-west vehicular route within the Potrillo Mountains Wilderness to allow Border Patrol and other law enforcement to conduct border security operations.

The legislation further supports county and local government efforts to implement early warning systems for extreme weather and flood prevention. It makes explicit the Bureau of Land Management’s authority to issue new rights-of-way for flood prevention and watershed restoration projects within the monument. It also clarifies that the BLM must include a full assessment of opportunities for watershed restoration as a part of its plan to manage the monument.

With this legislation, we honor the countless individuals who have made their way to the Organ Mountains and surrounding desert peaks to build a life and enjoy the abundant resources of this magnificent region. From those who left their marks carved into the cliff walls centuries ago, and the early homesteaders and travelers on the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail, to the modern business owners, ranchers, and families who use and explore the cliffs and grasslands of the proposed Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument today.

We all have the same goal. We all want to ensure that these natural and cultural treasures are preserved for future generations and that communities in Doña Ana County can continue to grow and prosper.

Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich both represent New Mexico in the U.S. Senate. Both are Democrats.