By Lucas Herndon / For the Las Cruces Sun-News
I am constantly amazed by the diversity of our amazing country and how far we have come in our relatively short history. I love learning about the stories and the places that our history has unfolded and I love visiting those places which we have preserved as national monuments. I wonder sometimes though, what is a national monument? Is it a small area or building that preserves one small part of our national heritage, like the George Washington Birthplace National Monument? Or is it a large portion of land that showcases a particular kind of geology or biology like the 60+ million acre Mariana Trench Marine National Monument? What if it could be both?
The proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument highlights both the rich cultural heritage that human interaction has brought to the Mesilla Valley over thousands of years, as well as preserves some of the most amazing and pristine portions of the Chihuahuan Desert in one goal. Perhaps one of the best things about this proposed monument is that it truly represents the diversity that exemplifies our own culture here in southern New Mexico as well as the multiplicity that truly is the United States.
The varied support for this monument is staggering. From the casual hikers and birders to serious sportsmen and women, teachers and parents, scientists and historians, Native American groups from all over the Southwest, civic bodies, legislative bodies, business leaders and many, many more. Once again, the very nature of our own landscape showcases the incredible mishmash that makes up life in modern America and highlights all of the attributes of what a national monument should be.
There are literally thousands of sites that still tell the tale of the first people to come to this area. Hundreds and hundreds of petroglyphs dot the rocks and cliff faces all over our region, thousands of stone tools still litter the desert floor and there is always more to discover. There are, in fact, so many wonderful sites stretching across the proposed areas of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, that you could easily make a monument just to honor these sites. But what makes this proposal so incredible is that the multiplicity of our collective history and culture don’t stop there, by a long shot. One portion of this monument contains the original boundary markers that designated the border between Mexico and the United States, after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This boundary changed six years later after the U.S. made a land-deal with Mexico known here as the Gadsden Purchase. Much of the land within our county would still be inside of Mexico and the home I grew up in would quite literally be in another country if it weren’t for the Gadsden Purchase. That single piece of American history had a distinct role to play in my own life but also serves as a great backdrop to stress the importance of this proposal in preserving our rich culture and heritage.
The Butterfield Overland Mail route had a major stop in the town of Mesilla, and then stretched west around Picacho Peak and over the Rough and Ready hills before sinking into the sunset toward the coast. Large portions of this historic trail will be preserved within the proposed monument and along with it, large portions of the history of the growth of the United States.
All across the country we have paid homage to the brave men who served overseas during that great and horrible struggle we refer to as World War II by erecting memorials and statues. But just west of our community are remnants of bombing targets used by the Army Air Corps to train pilots and bombardiers during that war and we have the awesome responsibility and privilege of being able to protect a few of those sites within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monument.
Other than the first crew of the Apollo 11, every other astronaut who walked on the moon first walked right here in Doña Ana County in Kilbourne Hole. Those modern day explorers used the unique features and rocky terrain to study and prepare for their incredible missions into space.
So what is a national monument? I cannot think of a better monument to our nation than one that preserves everything from the art and tools of the First Peoples, to the last portion of land to become part of the country; one that preserves portions of the trail people followed west in horse-drawn wagons as our country grew to areas used by our astronauts before flying to the moon.
Lucas Herndon is the executive director of the Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. He has lived his whole life in the Mesilla Valley and earned a degree in history from New Mexico State University. He continues to discover every day new reasons to stay and raise his daughter here.