Interior Secretary Leads Celebration for Organ Mountains Desert Peaks

By Steve Ramirez, Las Cruces Sun-NewsLas-Cruces-Sun-News

LAS CRUCES >> The Organ Mountains served as the perfect backdrop as several hundred southern New Mexicans gathered Friday at Oñate High School to celebrate the formal designation that established the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was joined by Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze, White House Council on Environmental Quality Acting Chair Mike Boots, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and community and business leaders in Las Cruces and Mesilla. A ceremony that lasted almost two hours was staged on Oñate’s soccer field.

In the not-too-far distance to the east, the afternoon sun and clouds cast different shades of blue and gray that highlighted the beauty of the mountains.

“Today is the culmination of a community-led effort to conserve, protect and promote these public lands, but it’s the beginning of a new chapter for the businesses that will benefit from the tourism and recreation, and the wildlife that rely on this unique habitat,” Jewell said. “The Organ Mountains and surrounding desert peaks are steeped in culture, history, wildlife and opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors — from hunting to hiking to gazing at ancient petroglyphs and fossils — and the president’s action ensures that these cherished landscapes are celebrated and passed on to the generations of New Mexicans and Americans to come.”

Wednesday, President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate nearly 500,000 acres as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

Udall and Heinrich, New Mexico Democrats, emphasized what other rally speakers said: strong public dialogue and participation was key in persuading Obama to use his presidential authority to declare the new national monument.

“This is a great day for New Mexico — thanks to so many New Mexicans who spoke up and worked hard, we have a new national monument,” Udall said. “It will put the unique and spectacular desert landscapes of Doña Ana County on recreation maps around the world, creating jobs and bringing in millions of dollars in revenue. I’m proud to join (retired U.S.) Senator (Jeff) Bingaman, Senator Heinrich, Secretary Jewell — and especially the many people of Doña Ana County who love Las Cruces’s beautiful backdrop and wanted it protected for generations to come. Today we celebrate them.”
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell autographs Paul Bardwell’s book during a dedication ceremony celebrating President Obama’s designation
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell autographs Paul Bardwell’s book during a dedication ceremony celebrating President Obama’s designation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument on Friday at Oñate High School. (Carlos Javier Sanchez — Sun-News)

Heinrich added, “This celebration and tremendous accomplishment would not be possible without the community’s strong support. I give my heartfelt gratitude to the diverse coalitions and stakeholders from southern New Mexico who worked tirelessly to make today a reality, and I thank Senator Jeff Bingaman who helped push this effort many years ago.

“The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument will help preserve our cultural identity, promote tourism in the region, boost the local economy, and foster recreational opportunities like hunting, hiking, and camping.”

Adrian Avila, a 21-year-old New Mexico State University senior who works for Groundwork Doña Ana County a Las Cruces youth organization that helps develop leadership potential, said he has seen, firsthand, the hidden treasures and benefits the national monument can provide.

“We were working on a project in the desert peaks to inventory the artifacts out there,” said Avila, who was born and raised in Las Cruces. “We would see a lithic, an arrowhead or a ground stone. I walked down a (former) river (bed) and saw a wall of petroglyphs. Even though I’ve lived here all my life, I’d never seen anything like that. I never knew those things existed out there.”

But those who opposed the monument’s designation were apparently turned away from Friday’s event. A small group gathered at a restaurant near Oñate High School, but were not allowed to enter the rally, which was conducted in a fenced area.

Las Crucen Bev Courtney said the monument’s designation was “unilateral enforcement of executive power,” used by Obama.

“…The federal designation was undemocratic, unilateral, and misleading,” said Courtney, in a portion of an email sent to the Sun-News. “The will of the people of Las Cruces and Doña Ana County has been ignored in favor of well-funded and organized special interest groups. The land is already protected and this latest action is unnecessary and endangers our community.”

Las Crucen Ron Camunez, who also publicly expressed concerns that the national monument designation included too much land, was able to attend Friday’s event.

“The designation has been made. What can we do about it,” Camunez said. “We’ve reached the point where we have to accept the fact and work together now that it’s been done.”

Steve Ramirez can be reached at 575-541-5452.