The visit by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in January to tour the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument suggests the Obama administration is looking seriously about using its powers under the Antiquities Act to declare the monument.
We believe action may happen this year, and want to ensure any action considers all of the users who would be impacted. And so, we sat down and talked with many of them.
We met with U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who have introduced one bill, and U.S Rep. Steve Pearce, who has introduced another. We met with ranchers who work within the footprint of the proposed monument, local law enforcement and the heads of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and local Chamber of Commerce. We met with the state land commissioner. And, we met with the diverse group of advocates who are pushing for the monument.
We came away better educated on the issue, but with our position mostly unchanged. We continue to believe that a national monument, with provisions for grazing, law enforcement and flood control, would provide permanent protection for and draw renewed attention to some of our most prized areas.
With two monument bills pending in Congress and a separate request for the president to use his powers under the Antiquities Act to declare a monument, there has been no lack of information and misinformation presented regarding the monument. Terms like “wilderness” and “monument,” which have very different definitions under federal law, too often get used interchangeably.
Our challenge has been to separate unreasonable fears from legitimate concerns. Quite frankly, we have taken much of what we have heard from those on both sides with a large grain of salt. We don’t believe a monument designation will lead to flocks of tourists lining up each day to get into the Robledo Mountains. Nor do we believe it would turn the Potrillos into a lawless hellscape of drug smuggling.
We do think there is value to a federal designation that would provide protection for the land and a listing of all that is available to see and do. We also think there are legitimate concerns regarding the impact on grazing and flood control.
We don’t believe either of the two bills pending in Congress will pass. That leaves it in the hands of the president, and there are some advantages to that. Because only Congress can declare a wilderness area, all of the land within the proposed monument would retain its existing designation — much as wilderness study area.
It is the restrictions to access mandated by a wilderness designation that have created the most criticism about the monument proposal. Those designations would not change if the monument is declared by the president.
The Senate bill that would likely serve as the model for the president covers just under 500,000 acres. About 200,000 acres are already wilderness study area. Most of the rest is land the BLM already owns. Some state trust land inside the monument will have to be traded for fair market value, but any talk of this being a “land grab” is simply misinformation.
It is also significant that the proposed monument here, like the one declared by the president last year near Taos, would be managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and not the National Parks Service. The BLM already owns and manages much of the land within the monument, and its mission is much more appropriate for that land that the Parks Service’s.
We urge the president to act, but also to ensure that any designation include clear provisions that allow for machinery needed for flood control, watershed maintenance and ranching. None of those activities need be incompatible with a national monument.