Jason Gibbs , Las Cruces Sun-News 5:49 p.m. MST December 9, 2016
LAS CRUCES – Chilly 30-degree temperatures were not enough to dissuade U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell from an early morning trek in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
Jewell, who has served in her position since 2013, was in Las Cruces as part of a nationwide tour to highlight the department’s progress in managing and conserving America’s public lands, water and wildlife, as well as to revisit national monuments designated under President Obama.
She began her day with a guided hike up Soledad Canyon in Organ Mountains, followed by a visit to local businesses that have embraced OMDP and incorporated it into goods and services that have bolstered the local economy. That tour was followed by a roundtable discussion during which more than 20 Las Cruces business owners and public officials described the impact of the designation.
Obama designated the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in 2014 as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands. The monument offers insights to culture, history and wildlife, as well as opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors — from hunting to hiking to seeing petroglyphs and fossils. The 496,000-acre monument includes portions of the the Organ Mountains, Doña Ana Mountains, Potrillo Mountains, Robledo Mountains and Sierra de las Uvas.
“What an amazing treasure you have here,” she told the assembled group. “People want quality of life. This is the place you have it all.”
Visitation to the national monument has more than doubled in the last year. According to BLM statistics, visitors to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument grew to 170,451 people in fiscal year 2016, a 102 percent increase over 84,197 visitors in fiscal year 2015.
“It’s been remarkable for Doña Ana County,” said Carrie Hamblen, CEO and president of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the roundtable. Those visits “translate into many more meals in our restaurants, many more room-nights for our hotels, and increased success of our local small businesses. We’re expecting these numbers to continue to grow.”
Recent polling data commissioned by the chamber show registered voters in Doña Ana County overwhelmingly support the national monument designation by more than a 4-to-1 margin, Hamblen said. The impact on businesses is largely anecdotal because tracking total spending related to OMDP and tourism is a process still being worked out. But those at the roundtable agreed the impact has been significant, not only at the cash register but in gaining national and international recognition for the region.
Renee Frank, a Las Cruces real estate agent, said the designation has raised interest among people considering buying homes or relocating to Las Cruces.
“I’ve seen improvement in how people view our wonderful places,” she said. “House listings now include ’20 minutes from the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument.'”
Gabe Vasquez, southern New Mexico outreach coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said the designation was a “diverse, multicultural and multi-faith effort representing the wishes of the people in this community … and we couldn’t be more thankful for the legacy they’ve helped leave for our children.”
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said watching the whole process for federal designation first-hand had been “incredible.” The results, seen in increased tourism and gross receipts taxes for the city, have “exceeded expectations,” he said.
Mesilla Mayor Nora Barrazas said her town had also seen an increase in gross receipts taxes, which she attributed in large part to the monument.
Chris Faivre, director of marketing and communications for Visit Las Cruces, said the designation sparked the successful Monuments to Main Street — held earlier this year — a 30-day celebration of the monument with visitors and the local businesses that have capitalized on its draw.
“We created … a really nice event that we intend to continue,” he said. “We see this as the beginning of something great.”
Business owners touted Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks blend coffee at Beck’s, OMDP cupcakes, guided tours by local outfitters, and outdoor gear and art inspired by the landscape and cultural heritage preserved in the monument.
It has also been a way for local businesses to try new partnerships and to reach out to artists to capitalize on the monument designation, said Arianna Parsons, who owns Beck’s with her husband, Tyrell Thacker.
Parsons, who is also executive director of the Downtown Las Cruces Partnership, noted the coffee shop’s OMDP blend has shipped around the United States and even overseas, each bag with a card explaining the monument.
The Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest’s CEO Diane Flanagan said the monument had led to a new OMDP patch for Girl Scouts to earn, which then spurred other monument patches, including White Sands.
Ben Gabriel, executive director of Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, said OMDP has been a catalyst for everything from new business ideas to an “artist in residence” program where an artist spends a month working in the monument. Above all, preserving open land for future generations of hikers, bikers, horsebackriders, hunters and other forms of recreation was foremost on most attendees’ minds.
Down the trail
“My grandfather showed me some of the hidden treasures and I hope to be able to show my grandchildren and it will still be there in the same shape,” said photographer and home builder Wayne Suggs, a Las Cruces native.
Suggs was the first to ask the question, the “elephant in the room” as he put it, about rumblings the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump may consider abolishing or reducing the footprint of national monuments established under the Obama administration. Those directives were suggested by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, head of the House National Resources Committee.
“I can’t predict the future,” Jewell responded. “But I’d be very surprised if there was an effort to undo what you have done here. … Your voices have been very powerful. There is a lot of science behind this (designation). There is a lot of history behind this.
“I just don’t see a movement against national monuments that have been created,” she added.
Other federal land designations in the region, near El Paso and Alamogordo, are also in the works.
Plans to create the Castner Range National Monument in the hills around El Paso are before the Obama administration, but it is uncertain if they will be acted on before the end of his term.
Jewell said many requests have been received by the administration and they are all being considered, the Castner Range proposal included.
In Otero County, commissioners have proposed changing White Sands National Monument to White Sands National Park. That designation can only come through an act of Congress, Jewell noted. As to the future of open lands, she believes they will remain a vital thread in the American fabric.
“As we grow as a nation, people need breathing space,” Jewell said. “It is vital, as was done with the OMDP, that community input be heard by federal officials and a strong voice from the community is needed to continue protecting wild lands. Over time, regardless of who is in the White House, people value public lands.”
New interior secretary
As Jewell spoke Friday, national media reported the Trump administration was expected to announce selection of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington as his secretary of interior.
Jewell said she would willingly work with whomever Trump nominates.
As fellow Washingtonians, Jewell said the pair share experience of wild lands, climate change and Native American issues, she said. She added that she hoped McMorris, if nominated and confirmed, would feel comfortable reaching out to her for advice.