Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich: Monument designation a win for southern NM

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More than 100 years ago, a New Mexican named Edgar Lee Hewett drafted a piece of legislation that would become known as the Antiquities Act. Many know that Republican Congressman John F. Lacey sponsored and passed this legislation and that President Teddy Roosevelt signed it and put it to great effect. Nearly every president since then, on both sides of the aisle, has used the Antiquities Act.

New Mexico has always led the nation in conservation policy, in part thanks to the groundwork laid by Hewett. His law has been used in New Mexico to designate White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, Bandelier, Chaco Canyon, and El Morro. These are places that drive our economy and preserve our history and culture.

On May 21, 2014, more than 100 years later, Hewett’s work was the law President Obama used to protect the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

This is a special moment for New Mexico. The monument designation will permanently protect these unique and historic lands. It is the culmination of efforts begun a decade ago by the people of southern New Mexico, including former Senator Jeff Bingaman. The monument is a reality thanks to the thousands of New Mexicans who treasure these iconic areas, and have worked tirelessly so that future generations will enjoy them as well.

The Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument will literally put southern New Mexico on recreation maps around the world. It will attract tourists, create jobs, and bring in millions of dollars in tourism revenue. Local families and visitors alike will be able to hike, hunt, and learn from the hundreds of significant historic sites throughout the monument.

The spectacular views afforded by the new monument are well-known, and the protected habitat for deer, quail and javelina guarantees some of the best hunting in the state. The canyons and grasslands are home to many species of birds and other plants and animals — some found nowhere else in the world. The region also has been important throughout history. It contains more than 5,000 archaeologically and culturally significant sites, including Spanish settlements and numerous petroglyphs and pictographs. Billy the Kid and Geronimo hid in these hills. World War II soldiers and astronauts from the Apollo space mission trained here.

The monument lands will continue to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as they are now. That means that grazing will operate under the same rules as it does today. The BLM will continue to have the explicit authority to issue new rights-of-way for flood prevention and watershed restoration projects within the monument. The state will continue to manage wildlife and game within the monument. Road access will remain for everyone, and ranchers will continue to have vehicular access to their allotment infrastructure. Further, the border security mission of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will not be limited. In fact, CBP has stated that the monument “provides important flexibility as we work to meet this ongoing priority.”

While the president’s proclamation creates the monument, there is still work to be done. We still need to create permanent wilderness areas within the monument, release wilderness study areas where needed, and to widen the international border buffer zone beyond existing law for federal, state, and local law enforcement to better patrol the border area. That can only be accomplished by an act of Congress.

We introduced monument legislation last December, and will continue to push for passage of portions that could not be addressed by the president’s proclamation. Our bill reflects the input of ranchers, nearby communities, recreation groups, area businesses, those involved in flood control, and other stakeholders, as well as state agencies, White Sands Missile Range, Fort Bliss and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Our legislation will increase the operational flexibility of Border Patrol beyond what they can do today. It creates new opportunities for expanded surveillance, pursuit and patrol. By releasing more than 30,000 acres from existing wilderness study area designation, it increases the current 0.3-mile buffer between the Mexican border and protected lands to a full five-mile buffer. It also designates an east-west vehicular route within the Potrillo Mountains Wilderness to allow Border Patrol and other law enforcement operations. And the legislation further clarifies provisions related to watershed restoration and flood prevention.

The Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument is a great step forward for southern New Mexico. It honors our heritage and it strengthens our economy. We all have the same goal. We all want to ensure that our natural and cultural treasures are preserved for future generations and that communities in Doña Ana County can continue to grow and prosper.

Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich represent New Mexico in the U.S. Senate.