Support grows for proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

Las Cruces Sun-News
3/31/2012
Steve Ramirez / Las Cruces Sun-News

If Las Cruces and southern New Mexico is “land rich,” as many residents have said for years, then it could be time to finally cash in.

In recent weeks, support for an initiative to designate those open, pristine lands as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument has grown. A coalition now in excess of 175 entities representing a noticeable cross section of residents has steadily picked up steam; more support and more activities to show they are sincere about pushing President Obama and other federal leaders to make the designation official.

“I’ll admit, I still don’t know much about it, but I’m getting more interested,” said Lorraine Gallegos, a Las Cruces beautician. “I’ll admit, too, that I’ve never been especially interested in the outdoors, the environment, all that stuff. But what I’ve heard so far about this national monument designation seems to make a lot of sense. It’s made me curious, and I want to learn more.”

New Mexico’s congressional delegation, including Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both Democrats, and Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., have put their support, too, behind the efforts —although a bill introduced in the House last week by Pearce is different from the original proposal.

“A very important element of this is that local groups are calling for it,” Pearce said. “I support that. I feel good about it.”

That bipartisan political endorsement could be a key in convincing Obama or other federal leaders to officially back the proposal. But although support grows to make the Organ Mountains and surrounding open spaces a national monument, none of the backers have a timeline in mind of when that could ultimately happen.

“This is the beginning of a grassroots campaign,” said Jon Hunner, a New Mexico historian.

“We have an amazing chance to protect and promote these singular treasures as a national monument,” said a portion of a letter the coalition has sent to Obama. “Doing so will leave a lasting legacy for our region, and indeed our country.”

Tony Cano, a U.S. Army veteran, a Tularosa native who now calls Las Cruces home, said there are numerous “hidden treasures” that support the designation. The vistas and views of the mountains and open space to see at all times of the day, the opportunities for him, his children, and possibly someday his grandchildren to hunt, fish, camp, hike, or go horseback riding are the quality-of-life activities that could be worth more than money because those would be family activities whose memories would last a lifetime, he said.

“Just look out there,” said Cano, standing in an area of the Aguirre Spring campground and looking out at a sea of yellow poppies that are blossoming on the east side of the Organs. “The military took me away from this for several years and I missed that. Now that I’ve retired I can come back here, sit down and enjoy it again. When I was growing up, this was one of my safe havens. I want that, too, for my children and my children’s children. It’s very important to me that they have that same access.

“It’s about family, it’s about home, it’s about quality of life. You can’t put a price tag on any of those things because together they’re worth more than money.”

But there could be money for southern New Mexico if the monument comes to be. Supporters have said there could be additional economic opportunities through avenues such as increased tourism and academic research.

Supporters agree there are still hurdles to overcome. The Pegasus project, which could mean millions of dollars to southern New Mexico if it is located near Las Cruces, might take up a portion of an area that has been included in the proposed national monument area.

But Doña Ana County Commissioner Billy Garrett, an organizer of the national monument proposal, said there are opportunities to discuss and possibly negotiate settlements that could benefit everyone concerned.

“The challenge is how to protect the qualities here,” Garrett said. “We are not saying in any way that we’re against growth or development. We understand that both of those are inevitable. But what we are saying is let’s do this in a smart and orderly way. Let’s protect things and grow.”

A national monument

  • A coalition representing approximately 175 entities, including southern New Mexico politicians, business owners, educators and interested residents has petitioned President Obama to designate the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
  • National monuments are protected public lands with unique characteristics that are managed to ensure their natural, historic and cultural values are protected for future generations.
  • They believe the designation would protect open land at and near the mountain range east of Las Cruces and other areas to the north and west of the city.
  • They also said the designation could stimulate southern New Mexico’s economy.
  • There are 243 known archeological sites within the proposed monument.
  • The proposed monument area also includes prominent landmarks such as: the Butterfield Trail, Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, Geronimo’s Cave, Kilbourne Hole, and Aden Lava Flow.