Poll finds strong support for larger Organ Mountains proposal

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
January 23, 2014

A strong majority of voters in Doña Ana County, N.M., support the designation of a national monument to protect the Organ Mountains and surrounding landmarks and archaeological sites along the Mexican border, according to a new poll commissioned by a veterans group.

The poll also found that 60 percent of voters favor a bill by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) to protect roughly half a million acres in Doña Ana, compared to 24 percent who favor a bill by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) to protect about 55,000 acres.

Also this week, the Truman National Security Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that trains young national security leaders and also promotes clean energy, said it backs the monument, saying it would preserve important military heritage sites and increase operational flexibility for the U.S. Border Patrol.

Overall, nearly three-fourths of Doña Ana voters said they favor a monument to protect landmarks including the Butterfield stagecoach trail, Apollo space mission test sites, World War II-era bombing targets, Geronimo’s Cave and hundreds of other archaeological sites, as well as other natural areas surrounding Las Cruces, according to the poll commissioned by Vet Voice Foundation.

The Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit advocates for veterans on issues including clean energy and the protection of public lands.

The poll was released days before Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is scheduled to visit Doña Ana with Udall and Heinrich to discuss “the community’s vision to preserve, protect and enhance” its public lands, a move many view as momentum toward a presidential monument designation.

An Organ Mountains designation would likely be Obama’s largest national monument to date.

The poll was conducted last week by GBA Strategies of Washington, D.C., and interviewed 400 Doña Ana residents by land line and cellphone. It has a margin of error of 4.9 points.

“Historic and beautiful places like the Organ, Robledo and Potrillo mountains are a crucial part of the America our service members are fighting for,” said Mark Starr, program director for Vet Voice, in a statement. “I would say protecting our public lands heritage is one of the most patriotic things we can do.”
The poll found that 84 percent of Democrats support the monument, compared with 50 percent of Republicans. More than four in five Hispanics support the monument, with 10 percent opposed.

“Importantly, the majority in Doña Ana County prefers the more extensive protections provided by creating the comprehensive Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument over a more limited proposal,” the poll memo states. “This competing proposal, introduced by Congressman Steve Pearce, would create a pared down national monument that leaves out several areas.”

Doña Ana went for President Obama in the 2012 general election, favoring him over Mitt Romney by a 56 percent to 41 percent margin.

Pearce spokesman Eric Layer called the poll a “farce … constructed entirely around partisan politics.”

“It links one opinion to Democrats in a heavily Democrat county, instead of covering the actual proposals of the bill,” Layer said. “Mr. Pearce will continue to work on the issue based on substance, not politics.”

Pearce remains opposed to calls by Udall, Heinrich and former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) for Obama to designate the monument under the Antiquities Act, arguing Congress should make that decision.

“Proposals to protect the Organs have been proceeding just as they should: with input from the people through the legislative process,” Layer said. “Congressman Pearce’s office is in communication with the offices of Senators Heinrich and Udall, and our office hopes Secretary Jewell understands that this is a decision that needs to be made in New Mexico, by New Mexicans, not outside the legislative process.”

The 112th Congress failed to pass a bill by Bingaman to protect the Organ Mountains or any other bill elevating protections for public lands. If that continues in the 113th Congress, Jewell said Obama will use his executive powers.

Michael Breen, executive director of the Truman National Security Project, said the Udall-Heinrich bill would allow the Border Patrol to expand surveillance, pursuit and patrol along the border, while creating an expanded buffer zone for Border Patrol and other law enforcement.

He lauded the bill for protecting top-secret bombing target sites he argued helped shorten World War II.

“As a former U.S. Army Captain, I believe it is important to protect this area so that future generations will remember the events that took place during a critical time in our nation’s military history,” he wrote in a Tuesday letter to Jewell, urging her to work with Obama to protect the area.

A broad coalition of conservationists, sportsmen, Hispanic and faith-based groups, and businesses are also lobbying Obama to designate the Organ Mountains monument — while some Republican lawmakers are urging the president to defer to Congress.

Monument backers include the Doña Ana County Commission; the cities of Las Cruces, N.M., and El Paso, Texas; and the New Mexico and Las Cruces green chambers of commerce, but it is opposed by some ranchers and sheriffs along the Southwest border who fear it would hamper efforts to maintain public safety.