There’s gold in those peaks: National monument debate heats up

By Alta LeCompte
Las Cruces Bulletin

Two guys from Taos pulled into Las Cruces around 2 a.m. Friday, Aug. 23, eager to share their story of parleying a national monument designation into sustainable profits and tax revenue.

The occasion that brought them to the City of the Crosses was an all-day forum starting at 9 a.m. on the projected economic impact of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks (OMDP) National Monument.

Sponsored by the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, the forum was held at Mesilla Town Center.

The Taos contingent of eco-tour guide Stuart Wilde, sporting a cowboy hat, and brewery owner Dan Irons in a T-shirt, was joined at the forum by Taos County Commissioner Larry Sanchez.

“And now we have a suit,” Irons quipped.

Sanchez told attendees that tourism figures are climbing slowly in Taos after several down years and following the designation in March of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

He circulated charts on tourism growth as well as one showing June gross receipts tax revenue of $725,940, compared with about $400,000 the two previous Junes.

A cold one for Obama

Irons, whose Taos Mesa Brewing Co. sits on U.S. Highway 64 near the bridge over the Rio Grande del Norte gorge – a primary access point and major attraction − shared anecdotal evidence of the early success of the monument designated by President Barack Obama in March.

Irons said his brewery created a pale ale and hosted a celebration to mark the signing of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

“It was a big financial benefit Day One,” he said.

“My uncle who lives in Washington, D.C., heard we were hosting the celebration, and he didn’t hear it from me.”

Irons said the brewery sent a case of the ale to the president.

Wilde commented the celebration helped Irons’ new business build a local client base.

“It’s a great model for a bricks-and-mortar business getting involved,” said Wilde, an outfitter and tour guide who owns and operates Wild Llama Adventures.

Irons said he has he seen foot traffic on the bridge over the gorge grow, and also has observed increases at nearby Manby Hot Springs where he hikes.

“The amount of visitors has jumped substantially. It used to be just a bunch of hippies, but now it’s families and large groups of people,” he said. “And the people I see at the hot springs in the morning I see again in the evening at my brewery, eating dinner and enjoying my beer.”

Coalition achieves success

Wilde attributed the success of the decadeslong campaign for the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument to a broad-based coalition of support, with backing from the business community, congressional delegation and leadership from the chambers of commerce.

“If it’s just the usual conservation suspects, (their support) is to be expected,” he said. “But when it reaches out across the community, especially the business community, that catches the eye of our elected officials.”

Commenting on the power of partnerships, he said, “A big part of the reason we’re here is we consider you guys neighbors. New Mexico is a big state, but the Rio Grande connects all communities.”

Advocating for New Mexico

The theme of north and south working together to promote New Mexico tourism echoed throughout the day’s proceedings.

Laura Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, said the statewide organization “is committed to helping this area promote the advantages.”

“Collectively we all have to be ambassadors for what we have here,” she said. “You are providing a quality of life people on the coasts can’t even imagine.”

Other speakers told how their clients come to New Mexico for open space and natural beauty. They stressed that these qualities give the area a competitive advantage.

“People come to Taos and to New Mexico to marvel at our natural beauty and honor our traditional cultures,” Wilde said.

“Open spaces bring money to our local economy,” said panelist Wayne Suggs, who builds high-end, Southwest-style homes on properties that capture views of mountainranges that ring the Mesilla Valley.

He said the mountains are one of the biggest draws for clients from outside the community, from Hawaii to upstate New York.

One physician, who was courted by San Francisco and Austin, Texas, chose Las Cruces because it had open spaces where he could ride his bike, Suggs said.

Irons said Colorado does $16 billion in tourism each year, while New Mexico does $6 billion.

“If you ask me, there’s not as much diversity of landscape and culture in Colorado,” the former Colorado resident said. “The real challengeto us as business owners and as a state iswe need to get that number higher.”

Economic impact examined

Laura Sanchez reported on a study the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce commissioned of the projected economic impact of the 500,000 acre OMDP National Monument.

The monument would include four distinct areas with scenic and historic attractions: the Organ, Robledo, Sierra de Las Uvas and Potrillo mountains to the southwest.

BBC Research & Consulting conducted the study using data from recently designated monuments in the Southwest, in combination with current local data from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the entire proposed monument site.

The study projected the following economic impacts of OMDP designation:

• Double the local and non-local visitation from 183,900 annually to 367,800

• A $7.4 million increase in regional economic activity

• Anincreaseof88jobs

• Double the tax revenue – an increase in state and local tax revenue from $569,000 per year to $1.1 million In looking at national monuments designated 2000-01 in the West, BBC found more than 300 percent visitation rate increase by 2007.

Sanchez agreed with members of the audience that projections in the study are conservative.

“I think that’s the appropriate approach for economists,” she said. “We could double or triple (the currentimpact). It’s all new-found revenue – I think that’s the key.”

Las Cruces splits on proposals

A national monument can be created either by the president or by legislation approved by Congress.

The OMDP proposal, which is endorsed by the City of Las Cruces and Doña Ana County, is not the only option locals will be taking to Washington when the federal government returns from summer vacation.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich will advocate for OMDP, previously proposed by former Sen. Jeff Bingaman In March, Rep. Steve Pearce introduced a bill calling for creation of a 54,000-acre national monument confined to the Organ Mountain range.

Committee hearings on the measure were held in May, according to Eric Layer, communication director for the congressman.

While in Las Cruces during Congress’ summer break, Pearce is promoting his bill, which in March was endorsed by the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce. The Las Cruces Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, while previously voting to support OMDP, in March also announced support for the Pearce proposal.

On Thursday, Aug. 22, Pearce met to garner support from the Las Cruces Home Builders Association.

Although Green Chamber forum attendees focused on the larger monument proposal, they alluded briefly to the Pearce plan.

Sanchez said achieving monument designation was a somewhat different process in southern New Mexico than in the north.

“This (BBC) study and these stories can be significant in starting a conversation with the congressman,” she said.

Sanchez said the goal should be not to make discussion of national monument proposals a political discussion, a question of D versus R.

Jeff Steinborn, who is both a state legislator and New Mexico Wilderness Alliance staffer, commented that hundreds of small businesses have signed up to support the OMDP proposal.

He said polling by Third Eye Strategies showed more than 80 percent local support for OMDP.

“The reality is there isoverwhelming support,” he said. “And the broad civic community has embraced the comprehensive proposal.”

The work continues

Wilde told the audience achieving monument designation is really just the beginning, and community involvement must continue, working with the BLM to develop a management plan for protected areas.

“The community itself can be involved in how the legislation is written,” he said.

Community participation in the planning ensures that increased tourism doesn’t restrict traditional uses such as hunting and ranching, he said.

“Ranchers care about grazing rights,” Sanchez said. “It makes sense to take their concerns into account. They need to be part of the overall planning and management. Their interests need to be protected. They’re a big part of the community, so their concerns also are our concerns.”

Forum participants said a monument designation does not take away any previously allowed uses, such as grazing.

The current economic impact of grazing in the OMDP area is $2.6 million, according to the BLM.

A management plan can steer traffic to appropriate areas for hiking, jeep tours, cultural tourism and other uses while spreading out the influx of visitors to prevent congestion at access points, Wilde said.

Irons said infrastructure must be put in place so visitors have the least possible impact on tourist sites.

He advised creating three types of access – easy, moderate and “you gotta want it.”

A sustained community effort will also be needed to promote the new designation, he said.

Local approaches to tourism

Offering food for thought for Las Cruces business people who will want to use monument designation to help attract customers were local panelists Dawn Starostka of Helping Hands Event Planning, Chris Lang ofLNG, David Chavez of the Mesquite Historical District and Andrea Lawrence and Philip San Filippo of the Las Cruces Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Lawrence said counties next to national monuments have more jobs and higher incomes than their counterparts.

The monuments attest to a quality of life that attracts foreign tourists with time and money to spend, as well as companies making location decisions, she said.

Starostka said the Las Cruces area now is home to 30 festivals.

“Events are things that get people to come to Las Cruces,” she said. “People can hike first and then drink wine.

The events can be an opportunity for businesses to promote their products and services.

“A solar company with a banner at our festivals creates an image in the mind of visitors,” she said. “Be creative about your image and who your consumer is.”

Facebook is becoming a powerful tool for marketing the festivals, she said. The country musical festival, which had 46 likes previously, jumped to 3,000 when the page went interactive.

She said the White Sands International Film Festival packet promotes the outdoors and provides information such as how to get to Dripping Springs.

Others joined her in advocating cross marketing.

“Las Cruces is a tourism dream waiting to happen,” San Filippo said.

We have to convince ourselves we’re worth it, he added, and then convince others.

“We need a hook – the national monument is a hell of a hook,” he said. “If we had that or spaceport, suddenly people would know where Las Cruces is.”

San Filippo outlined a paradigm in which if you build a place people want to visit, you’ll build a place where people want to live. If you build a place where people want to live, you build a place where people want to work – and you build a place where business has to be.

“We need to know we have a great opportunity here for us,” he said.