LAS CRUCES >> President Barack Obama signed a proclamation Wednesday formally designating nearly half a million acres of land in Doña Ana County as a national monument — a move that comes after years of heated local debate over the proposal.
The signing event to officially designate the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument took place in the nation’s capital, but was attended by some Las Crucens. And two live viewing events happened locally.
Obama emphasized that conserving notable natural places is important for future generations.
“Anyone who’s ever seen the Organ Mountains that overlook Las Cruces, New Mexico, will tell you that they are a spectacular sight,” he said in a short speech before the signing. “You got massive rocks that jut up 9,000 feet in the air and stretch for 20 miles, like the organ pipes of a giant. And they’re home to many of God’s smaller creatures, as well. Deer and antelope roam — falcons, mountain lions.”
Obama also said protection for historical sites, such as those visited by Billy the Kid and possibly Geronimo, within the monument also make the land valuable. He argued the move will boost tourism and the economy locally.
The national monument, at 496,000 acres, is the largest set aside since Obama took office in 2009.
While praised by environmentalists, the move is generating criticism from some lawmakers in the West and local law enforcement agents who see Obama’s use of power as a threat to security in a region where the influence of Mexican drug cartels, human smuggling and illegal immigration are all apparent.
Doña Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison recalls the times his deputies and federal agents were shot at as they pursued suspected drug smugglers through the area that will now be known as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. He also talked about the dozens of stolen cars that have been used to ferry drugs along pathways that lead through the desert and past border patrol checkpoints.
“If we have no ability to patrol that area, crime is going to increase. It will be akin to the Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona. I wonder how many years it will be before we have to post signs that say ‘Enter at your own risk.’ That’s my concern,” Garrison said.
Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday the designation will “in no way limit our ability to perform our important border security mission.”
The campaign by environmentalists, some hunters and tourism officials to gain wilderness protection for the Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks has dragged on for a decade, with numerous versions introduced by members of the state’s congressional delegation over the years. Many ranchers and off-road vehicle users have opposed the large-scale monument.
In the capital
Attendees at the Washington, D.C., signing included most of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, as well as local officials such as Doña Ana County Commission Chairman Billy Garrett and Las Cruces City Councilor Gill Sorg, who strongly supported the proposal. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both D-N.M., were on hand. They had proposed federal legislation to protect the acreage, which includes popular hunting areas and features steep rock outcroppings, petroglyphs, ancient lava flows and sites such as Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, Geronimo’s Cave and the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail.
“The president’s decision finally puts into motion a plan that began with the people of southern New Mexico, who wanted to ensure these special places would continue to be available for local families and visitors to hike, hunt and learn from the hundreds of significant historic sites throughout the area for generations to come,” Udall said in a statement Wednesday. “I want to thank the thousands of New Mexicans who have worked tirelessly for many years to get us to this point.”
Obama designated the land under a 1906 law that allows presidents to declare national monuments. The move is separate from a bill that was introduced by Heinrich and Udall to declare a national monument — part of which, at least under their proposal, also would become federal wilderness.
Congress, however, has shown little interest in lands protection legislation in recent years.
Republican Rep. Steve Pearce, whose congressional district covers the region, had proposed the designation for just 55,000 acres under another bill, H.R. 995. He issued a statement taking issue with Obama’s use of the 1906 U.S. Antiquities Act, saying monuments created under it are supposed to cover only the “smallest area compatible” with the designation. He contended the approval “flies in the face of the democratic process.”
“This single action has erased six years of work undertaken by Doña Ana County ranchers, business owners, conservationist, sportsmen officials and myself to develop a collaborative plan for the Organ Mountains that would have preserved the natural resource and still provided future economic opportunities,” he said.
Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell referenced a trip she made to monument areas in January.
“They are beautiful,” she said.
Jewell is expected to return to Doña Ana County later this week.
The Doña Ana County Government Center opened the county commission chambers to residents for a live broadcast Obama signing the monument proclamation, an event announced Wednesday morning. About 25 people attended, cheering at times during Obama’s remarks.
Attorney Joe Shattuck, a former Las Crucen who now lives in Albuquerque, happened to be in the county building when the broadcast happened. He moved from Doña Ana County about a year ago, but still has strong interest in the national monument proposal.
“I’d been very worried it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “I’d thought the special interest groups would be able to stop it.”
More Las Cruces supporters of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks proposal gathered at Beck’s Coffee House on Mesquite Street.
Sun-News reporter Diana Alba Soular contributed to this report. She may be reached at 575-541-5443.