DHS says Organ Mountains designation won’t impede border security

By Phil Taylor, Energy and Environment
May 21, 2014

President Obama’s plan to designate a 500,000-acre national monument in southern New Mexico today will not impede the government’s ability to secure the Mexican border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The CBP statement refutes claims by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and a local New Mexican sheriff that the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument would restrict land access and impede the U.S. Border Patrol from cracking down on illegal drug and human trafficking.

“This designation will in no way limit our ability to perform our important border security mission, and in fact provides important flexibility as we work to meet this ongoing priority,” CBP spokeswoman Jenny Burke said in an email. “CBP is committed to continuing to work closely with the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to maintain border security while ensuring the protection of the environment along the border.”

Obama’s plans and previous legislative proposals to protect five mountain ranges above the Chihuahan Desert grasslands surrounding Las Cruces have sparked debate for years over whether they would slow officers’ pursuit of illegal drug smugglers.

Bishop, the chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, sent a letter to Obama this week saying it would be “irresponsible” to designate a monument before finding solutions to “existing criminal activities plaguing the border.”

“Restrictive environmental laws within these federal corridors limit Border Patrol access and, as a result, make it easier for drug smugglers and human traffickers to move their drugs and people in and out of the United States unnoticed,” he said.

In addition, Doña Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison was quoted this week in the Las Cruces Sun-News warning that the designation would shut down access for his deputies, allowing border crossers to treat the land as they wish.

“The lands they’re trying to promote will be torn up and misused by people that don’t give a flip about them anyway,” Garrison said.

In reality, the monument’s specific boundaries and management prescriptions will not be known until later this afternoon when Obama signs the proclamation. The White House has said the monument will be based on S. 1805 by New Mexico Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich.

That bill would tighten motorized restrictions in the monument area by also designating 240,000 acres of wilderness. But it also would drop wilderness protections from within 5 miles of the border and keep a major east-west route through the wilderness open to law enforcement officials.

CBP backed the bill in a letter to Heinrich last January, stating it would “significantly enhance the flexibility” of Border Patrol by specifying that agents would have unfettered access in a 5-mile border zone currently protected as a wilderness study area.

While the Obama monument will be modeled after the bill, presidents can neither declare wilderness nor release wilderness study areas from the roadless protection they were granted by Congress. Both would require passage of the Udall-Heinrich bill.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in January met with senior officials at the Bureau of Land Management and Border Patrol in southern New Mexico to pledge her cooperation in policing the area, according to an Interior Department official.

Today’s proclamation will also allow watershed restoration and small-scale flood prevention projects that support the monument’s purpose, activities that may not have been possible in wilderness areas.

Monument supporters said the president is mindful of the security threat.

“The current wild character of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks has led to extremely low rates of illegal border crossing activity,” said Garett Reppenhagen, regional coordinator for Vet Voice Foundation, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit that advocates for veterans on issues including clean energy and the protection of public lands.

Peter Ossorio, a Las Cruces resident and retired Army intelligence officer who prosecuted drug smugglers in southern New Mexico as an assistant U.S. attorney, said current Border Patrol measures make the area “nearly impenetrable.”

Organ Mountains will be more than twice as big as Obama’s largest designation to date, the 243,000-acre Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in northern New Mexico (E&ENews PM, May 19).

The move comes months after Obama pledged in his State of the Union address to use executive powers to set aside public lands that Congress fails to protect.

The move is backed strongly by conservation, sportsmen’s, tribal, county and national security leaders, as well as local businesses that cite an independent report that found the designation would contribute about $7.4 million to the local economy each year.

It is opposed by Bishop and Rep. Steven Pearce (R-N.M.), who represents the area. Both say Obama is abusing the Antiquities Act and circumventing Congress.

Some ranchers also worry that the monument will lead to new land restrictions, though administration officials insist that will not be the case.