Enhancing border security and protecting a national monument

The Hill
By U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Steven M. Anderson (Retired)
April 9, 2014

A few years ago, I participated in the VFW’s Bataan Memorial Death March – an annual marathon every March through the challenging,high-desert terrain of White Sands Missile Range. I was stirred by the camaraderie with fellow soldiers, and the breathtaking landscape of Southern New Mexico. The U.S. Military has a rich history in this region – one I am fighting for today so that future generations can also appreciate the history and beauty of the five mountain ranges of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region. (But perhaps without the strenuous run.)

World War II military history unfolded on these public lands: bomber pilots and crew practiced using the new Norden bombsight technology. Today, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) are working with the local community and the White House to permanently protect the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region as a national monument.

In my mind, it’s a no brainer. These public lands contain breathtaking natural resources and historical significance of interest to the entire country. They attract business owners, tourists, and wannabe marathoners like me, boosting the local economy. Having grown up in northern California, spending summers hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I know how important getting outside is to the health of our kids, too, and want to see all children have similar opportunities to access and enjoy public lands.

Additionally, having served 31 years in the U.S. Army, I believe that a national monument here would not hinder our national security, but actually improve it by providing better, more direct access to our border security personnel.

I’m not alone in my read of the situation. Thomas Winkowski, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in a January 2014 letter to Senator Heinrich:“The provisions of this bill would significantly enhance the flexibility of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to operate in this border area.”

Some have disagreed with the commissioner, but anyone who has read the common-sense proposal from Udall and Heinrich can see that it enhances Border Patrol’s ability to conduct law enforcement and border security operations along the U.S.-Mexico border. It provides a five-mile buffer zone (it is now only 1/3 of a mile) for vehicle access and infrastructure needs. It also retains Border Patrol’s current access to lands within and around other parts of the proposed monument boundary.

Moreover, the current wild character of the Portillo Mountains has led to extremely low rates of illegal activity and apprehension. According to the Albuquerque Journal, Border Patrol agents apprehended only 13 people in the area around the Portillo Mountains in fiscal year 2009. This is one of the safest areas of our nation’s southwest border, and we should act while we still can to preserve its history and beauty.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed legislation intended to curtail the president’s authority to protect new parks and monuments. Should the bill become law, protecting the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks would be impossible. As a conservative Republican and a veteran, this partisanship about our natural and cultural heritage baffles me. We should defend our national heritage – not deride it.

The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region of Doña Ana County is the crossroads of New Mexico’s diverse history and culture — filled with natural wonders, compelling history, and incredible recreational opportunities. Let’s protect these public lands; it is unquestionably in our national interest.

Anderson retired in April 2010 after a 31-year career in the U.S. Army that included logistics command and staff assignments in Korea, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Germany, Hawaii and four tours in the Pentagon. His most notable military assignment was serving under General David H. Petraeus as his Deputy Chief of Staff, Logistics for the Multi-National Force in Iraq for 15 months (Aug 06 – Nov 07). His awards include the Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and Bronze Star.