New route through wilderness

By Walter Rubel, Las Cruces Sun-News
October 27, 2012

The letter sent last week by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall urging President Barack Obama to consider using his powers under the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument for the Organ Mountains and other areas in Doña Ana County could accelerate a process that has been stalled in Congress.

“He’s listened. His secretary of the interior has listened. The grassroots movement has spoken to him and to his people. And I would not be surprised, come the first of the year, if the president made the declaration and signed the papers, on a recommendation from his secretary of the interior,” Udall said Friday during a visit to the Sun-News.

Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Pearce sent his own letter to the president last week, seeking his “reassurance that no new national monuments or wilderness areas will be designated by your administration in the 2nd Congressional District of New Mexico.”

That pretty much explains why, for the first time, Udall and Bingaman have turned to the president to resolve the issue. They still haven’t given up on legislation, Udall said. He even held out hope that their letter could be the spark that leads to passage of legislation in the lame duck session.

But that doesn’t seem likely. Ours is one of 27 wilderness bills now languishing in Congress, according to the Wilderness Society, which noted that the current Congress is on track to become only the second since the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 not to add a single acre to our nation’s protected lands.

With Pearce leading the opposition in the Republican-controlled House, it would seem doubtful there would be agreement from that body, if legislation cleared the Senate. And, there will be more pressing matters, like the sequestration bill, farm bill and expiration of the Bush tax cuts, all demanding attention in the short lame duck session.

This will be the last session for Bingaman, who as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been a leader in the effort to preserve public lands. While that make not make a difference in his effort to get legislation passed, it could mean something to Obama. The president has declared his desire to see more public lands preserved, but thus far has little to show in that regard.

Our proposed national monument was one of two Udall and Bingaman urged the president to consider in their letter. The other is the Rio Grande Gorge and adjacent Taos Plateau in Taos and Rio Arriba counties.

Udall said that in preparing the legislation they tried to work with all the stakeholders. When the local chamber raised issues about border security, they increased the Border Patrol buffer zone. But, when Republicans took over the House in 2010, it became more difficult to build consensus on wilderness issues.

“We just concluded in the last couple of weeks, lets put another option on the table,” he said. “The letter doesn’t mean we’ve given up on the legislation. It just means we’ve reached the point where maybe we should put both options on the table and see what happens.”

There are small differences between the legislation and the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument proposed by local wilderness advocates. Udall said it would be up to the secretary of the interior, working with local officials and advocates, to determine exactly what the monument would look like if the president acts.

“The secretary of the interior has been very involved with the local groups on this and he knows full well what’s in our legislation,” Udall said. “When you’re dealing with the president doing something under the Antiquities Act, he benefits from all his agencies talking to him, Homeland Security and public lands agencies.”

Walter Rubel is managing editor of the Sun-News. He can be reached at or follow @WalterRubel on Twitter.