As congressional efforts stall, N.M. locals take wilderness protection into their own hands

Jessica Estepa, E&E reporter
July 31, 2012

With a 6-0 vote, the consensus among the city councilors of Las Cruces, N.M., was clear: Make the surrounding public lands into a national monument.

“You got to see democracy in action today,” Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said during the mid-July meeting on a resolution that urges President Obama to declare a 600,000-acre area that encompasses endangered wildlife habitat, archaeological sites and recreational areas as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

In previous months, similar scenes have played out in the town of Mesilla, a small municipality just outside Las Cruces, and in Doña Ana County, which surrounds the city. In each locality, local officials unanimously voted to support the resolution.

It’s not unusual for local governments to petition the president to invoke the Antiquities Act, which gives the commander in chief the authority to designate public lands as national monuments. But what stands out about these efforts to protect the swath of high desert are the two existing congressional measures — one from each side of the aisle — to protect parts of it.

“I think everyone wants to see some protection done for these lands that we love,” said Roberta Salazar-Henry, retired deputy director of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. “What people don’t agree on is how it should be done.”

Indeed, each of the proposals — from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) and the citizens — varies vastly in the size of the wilderness designation. Bingaman’s measure to create two national conservation areas and eight wilderness areas would set aside 241,000 acres as wilderness, while Pearce’s legislation would designate 58,500 acres as a national monument. The citizens’ resolutions would designate the largest area — 600,000 acres — as wilderness.

Doña Ana County is home to towering mountain ranges, from the Organ Mountains that dominate the landscape to the Robledo Mountains and the Sierra de las Uvas, which make up the Desert Peaks. The high-desert landscape, all within the Chihuahuan Desert, includes mesas, buttes, canyons and arroyos. Wildlife, from golden eagles to coyotes, thrives on the land. In years past, Spanish settlers surveyed the land, and Billy the Kid roamed with his gangs over the desert.

S. 1024, offered by Bingaman, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, designates 241,000 acres as wilderness, the highest form of federal protection for public lands.
When the bill was brought up for a hearing in August 2011, the Bureau of Land Management offered its support, calling the area “some of America’s most compelling landscapes.”

But the wilderness designation measure received some criticism, including worries that the restriction of motorized access would hurt law enforcement and the Border Patrol.

“Such prohibitions would stymie my department’s efforts to protect the public safety,” Doña Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison wrote in a letter to the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks.

Steve Wilmeth, a New Mexico rancher, said designating wilderness has, in the past, not only threatened the livelihoods of ranchers, but it eventually pushed ranchers out of various areas. That’s what happened to his family, he said, when the Gila Wilderness became the world’s first federally designated wilderness in the 1920s.

“We are fighting for our existence,” he said.

Bingaman, along with Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), had introduced identical legislation during the 111th Congress. Though that measure was reported favorably out of committee, it was never called up for a vote. And now, as Bingaman approaches his final months in the Senate, time is running short for the legislation to pass on his watch.

“There was a lot of support among the community for the senator’s wilderness bill,” said Sharon Thomas, mayor pro tempore of Las Cruces. “It just never got off the ground.”

Although there has been no action on the legislation since a hearing was held a year ago, Bingaman spokeswoman Jude McCartin said he will continue to pursue passage of his bill, likely during the lame-duck period following the November elections.

A smaller footprint

In a move more unlikely among congressional Republicans, Pearce also wants to protect a portion of the land in Doña Ana, albeit a much smaller area than Bingaman.

Introduced this year, H.R. 4334 would designate 58,500 acres as the Organ Mountains National Monument. Designating a smaller area, Pearce said, would leave the smallest footprint possible while protecting an area that everyone — from the wilderness groups to the ranching community — could agree on.

“We feel like ours is the best proposal because it’s the least restrictive,” he said in an interview. “A national monument is not as restrictive as wilderness.”

The bill includes a mandated stipulation that grazing would continue on the lands. It addresses the concerns of the ranching industry, which fears it will be eventually pushed out of the area as environmental priorities take over.

“It’s the advantage of that proposal, that grazing has been included in the language of the bill,” New Mexico rancher Tom Mobley said.

Indeed, the Bureau of Land Management said it did not object to this portion of the bill but noted that grazing is not a stated purpose of a national monument. By making grazing a part of the national monument, it could lead to confusion and inconsistent management standards in the future, BLM Assistant Director Carl Rountree said at a hearing in June.

Pearce’s proposal did garner support from the local Chamber of Commerce, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, and the People for Preserving Our Western Heritage group.

“This bill makes sense for the residents of Doña Ana County,” said Matt Rush, executive vice president of the livestock bureau. “It protects the Organ Mountains, which are an iconic feature of our county, while protecting ranching, which is an economic generator in our area.”

‘Now is the time to do something about it’

Wilderness study areas were first designated around Doña Ana County in the 1980s. Shortly afterward, then-Rep. Joseph Skeen (R-N.M.) proposed a bill that would have designated a national conservation area for the Organ Mountains. But, much like Bingaman’s first wilderness proposal, it never gained traction.

The citizen proposal to designate 600,000 acres came about because of such inaction in the past.

“It’s always been on our minds,” said Gill Sorg, one of the Las Cruces city councilors who approved the resolution supporting the designation in mid-July.

The proposal was first announced in March and has gained supporters and opponents since then. It encompasses a larger area than either of the congressional proposals because it aims to protect more resources, said David Soules, a local sportsman who has been giving presentations on the proposal.

The initiative took shape because of the growth in the urban area, said Salazar-Henry of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. Las Cruces, while not a large city, has seen its population grow exponentially in recent years to 99,000 people. If that trend continues, development would spread — especially in the lands that are at the heart of the proposals.

The people of Las Cruces could wait for Congress to take action, but given the current dysfunction, it seems unlikely that either Bingaman’s or Pearce’s proposal may move forward this year, Soules said, citing the need for a proclamation from the president.

“After so many years of no action, now is the time to do something about it,” he said.