In New Mexico last week, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with elected leaders, local sportsmen, ranchers and veterans. The former Montana congressman squeezed in a horseback ride and even showed off some wrestling moves to New Mexico’s senators.
Currently, Zinke is considering the fate of about 20 places currently protected as national monuments, including Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces and Rio Grande del Norte near Taos. New Mexico’s senators and sportsmen took advantage of his visit to the state, bringing him to the Sabinoso Wilderness in San Miguel County.
Even though Congress designated the wilderness in 2009, hikers, hunters and horseback riders have been locked out of the 16,000-acre area’s canyons and mesas. That’s because it’s “landlocked” by private lands. Earlier this year, the Wilderness Land Trust bought a private ranch adjacent to the wilderness; they want to donate it to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
But the land transfer must still be approved by the Trump administration.
On Saturday afternoon, Sen. Martin Heinrich said he was feeling “pretty good” after riding with Sen. Tom Udall and Zinke into the Sabinoso. “The secretary seemed to have a favorable impression of the place, and I think it was helpful for him to see the reality on the ground,” Heinrich said. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but I’m optimistic.”
Udall told NM Political Report he also thought the visit was constructive. “He said he would move this forward, he said ‘I’m going to work with you to get this done,’ and so I hope we can sort through whatever details there are and get this transfer made.”
Both senators also pitched Zinke on the value of the two New Mexico monuments under review. Neither knows if the secretary will call to rescind completely or shrink the 496,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument or the 242,000-acre Rio Grande del Norte—or leave them as-is.
In April, President Donald Trump directed Zinke to review national monument designations made under the Antiquities Act since 1996 that are larger than 100,000 acres in size. Trump said he signed the executive order at the request of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, “to end these abuses and to return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all the states, the people of the United States.”
“I think we’ve reached the point in Doña Ana County and Taos County where that community consensus exists [in support of the monuments], and I think it would be misguided to do something that doesn’t align with it,” Heinrich said.
Udall also said it’s unclear whether Zinke will make his recommendations to Congress or if the president will take executive action.
“We still don’t know what the decision is,” Udall said. “If he or the president take action to roll back monuments, there are two things: one, I don’t think he has the legal authority, and I’m thinking he’ll be in a legal fight with conservation organizations.” Udall added that some members of Congress would likely support those lawsuits, filing amicus curiae, or friend-of-the court briefs.
Meanwhile, just hours after wrapping up the horseback ride, Interior staff tweeted pictures of the secretary “horsing around,” including one with Zinke holding both senators in a headlock.
Southern New Mexicans frustrated, disappointed
Zinke’s jovial Saturday morning visit to northern New Mexico came at the tail-end of a trip that left many in the southern part of the state feeling worried and frustrated.
Earlier in the week, Rep. Steve Pearce, the congressional delegation’s lone Republican, praised Zinke for traveling to New Mexico and said the trip came at his “personal request” to visit Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. Pearce supports reducing the size of the monument, which lies within his congressional district. Zinke’s staff also Tweeted a photo of him speaking with Gov. Susana Martinez by phone. Martinez also favors scaling back New Mexico’s monuments.
But the secretary declined an invitation from the mayors of Las Cruces, Mesilla, Anthony, and Sunland Park and the Doña Ana County Commission to attend a public meeting in support of the monument at the Las Cruces Convention Center Thursday night.
A former Navy SEAL, Zinke hiked with some local veterans through Valles Canyon in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Afterwards, the veterans released a statement thanking the secretary for meeting with them, but saying they were “discouraged to learn about his interest in shrinking that national monument, especially before meeting with diverse stakeholders today, and after not attending the community town hall last night.”
State Rep. Bill McCamley was also disappointed that Zinke didn’t show up at the public event in Las Cruces.
“That was a little frustrating, but hopefully the message got to him that there are a lot of people that feel very passionately about both the process, where people took more than a decade to figure out this [monument’s boundaries], and the consequences,” the Democrat from southern New Mexico said.
On Thursday, McCamley had the chance to fly over the monument. From a small plane, he looked over Broad Canyon, home to thousands of Native carvings in the stone, and Outlaw Rock, where Billy the Kid visited. They also flew over bombing range targets, where pilots trained for WWII and a cliffs that rock climbers scale.
He said the flight made him appreciate the monument and all it represents even more.
The national monument has earned the Las Cruces and Doña Ana County area national and international attention, he said. “The exposure that my community has gotten for this wonderful, gorgeous piece of land has turned into jobs for our community,” he said. “Shrinking, or getting rid of, the monument will chop off one of the legs we really depend upon here, for the small amount of economic growth we have.”
Zinke: Not horsing around with Alaska
Earlier this week, Zinke landed on the national stage during the health care debate when the Alaska Dispatch News reported that he phoned Alaska’s two Republican senators after one voted against congressional attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
According to the story, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said the call offered a “troubling message.” He told reporter Erica Martinson, “I’m not going to go into the details, but I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop.” He also added, “I tried to push back on behalf of all Alaskans. … We’re facing some difficult times and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the policies that Secretary Zinke and the president have been talking about with regard to our economy. But the message was pretty clear.”
Sullivan voted for all three versions of repeal, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski was one of two Republicans to oppose all three.
Now, Arizona U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat, is calling for investigations into those phone calls. Grijalva is the ranking minority member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
In their letter, the two congressmen point out that the secretary’s phone calls were placed shortly after Trump tweeted his displeasure with Murkowski over her vote, and a day after U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s name appeared on an editorial concerning the health care debate.
“The close timing of these actions suggests an apparent pattern and organized effort within the Trump administration involving the use of federal resources to advance partisan legislation,” they wrote. Grijalva and Pallone also requested a formal opinion from the Inspector General and GAO as to whether Zinke’s actions violated federal laws such as the Anti-Lobbying Act. That act prohibits federal employees from lobbying members of Congress and trying to influence pending legislation.
Pearce is also on the Natural Resources Committee. On Friday, NM Political Report reached out to the congressman, who recently announced his candidacy for governor, and asked if he shared the Democrats’ concerns about Zinke’s calls to the Alaska elected officials. Earlier this month, Pearce’s chief of staff, Todd Willens, was named assistant deputy secretary at the Interior Department.
As of Sunday night, Pearce’s office has not responded.