July 26, 2017

Local leaders await answers from visiting Interior Secretary

Bureau of Land Management, Patrick Alexander, via Wikimedia Commons

Baldy Peak and La Cueva seen from Baylor Canyon Road, west side of the Organ Mountains, Dona Ana County, New Mexico, 23 May 2005.

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Zinke is visiting New Mexico this week as part of his review of national monuments throughout the country, including New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments.

Zinke will visit northern New Mexico—but not Rio Grande del Norte itself— Saturday with U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall. The Interior head’s schedule primarily focuses on southern New Mexico and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.

That has led to speculation the secretary will not order a review of Rio Grande del Norte near Taos, but will call for changes to the 496,000-acre monument in southern New Mexico. President Barack Obama designated the monument near Las Cruces in 2014 after a decade of planning and public meetings.

A press release announcing Zinke’s schedule noted the secretary will meet with stakeholders and elected officials “who represent all sides of the issue”—that is, those who want the monuments to remain intact and those organizations, like New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, that advocate for their reduction.

The secretary has not yet accepted a month-old invitation from the mayors of Las Cruces, Mesilla, Anthony, and Sunland Park and the Doña Ana County Commission, which all supported the creation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument.

Leaders from those southern New Mexico governments asked Zinke to join a public meeting scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Las Cruces Convention Center.

“We’re trying to respectfully ask Secretary Zinke to remove Organ Mountains from the list, and to leave it as it is,” Anthony Mayor Diana Trujillo told NM Political Report.
“To me, it’s not just about the economic development, the monument is an asset to our city,” she said. “There is hiking, sightseeing, and we encourage our families here in Anthony to attend the monument, go and see what it’s all about, see what culture and historic preservation we have.”

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican, praised Zinke for traveling to New Mexico. Pearce said the trip comes at Pearce’s “personal request” to visit the southern New Mexico monument.

“During his trip to New Mexico, he will be able to experience firsthand the beauty of the Organ Mountains and gain a greater understanding of our joint desire to protect them for generations to come,” Pearce said. “At the same time, he will be able to meet with the businesses, ranchers, border security personnel, and outdoorsmen who are negatively impacted by the current size and complexity of the monument.”

Doña Ana County Commissioner Billy Garrett is anxious to hear Zinke’s response. If he doesn’t have the opportunity to meet with the secretary, there are a few things he’d like Zinke to know.

“As far as the vast majority of people in Doña Ana County, this is a settled issue,” he said. “We worked for more than ten years to have the monument established, and this is a designation that has brought some international attention to our area, in a very positive way.”

Visitors to the monument have boosted tourism and business in the area, and there have been other “collateral benefits,” he said.

“People are saying, ‘It must be a pretty cool place to live if it’s got a national monument,” he said. “There are people who want to come here, and live here, because of the closeness to the monument.”

Garrett said protecting the monument has also encouraged local pride in the landscape.

“This is a special place, and we have reasons to be proud of our area, proud of our heritage—and that has touched groups throughout the region,” Garrett said. “It’s confirmed for a lot of people that this is public land, this is our land, this is a special place….It’s multi-cultural, it’s multi-ethnic and it’s multi-generational.”

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April directing Zinke to review national monument designations made under the Antiquities Act since 1996 that are larger than 100,000 acres in size. The order came at the request of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican.

Trump said he signed the order “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.”

Presidents have the authority to create national monuments under the federal Antiquities Act, which which dates back to the early part of the 20th century. Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the law gives presidents the authority to bypass Congress and protect federal lands that have archaeological or historical sites or are scientifically significant. Sixteen presidents, including eight Republicans and eight Democrats, have used the act to designate national monuments.

New Mexico’s senators have voiced opposition to reducing the size of the monuments. Pearce, the only Republican member of the federal delegation, has long opposed the size of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, which is within his congressional delegation.

As of Tuesday morning, Zinke’s public schedule includes:

Thursday, July 27
Helicopter tour of Organ Mountains Desert Peaks (closed to press)
Roundtable meeting​s​ with local stakeholders including elected officials, ranchers, academics, ​border security experts, ​and others (closed to press)
Press Conference – 4:00 PM MT RSVP to Interior_Press@ios.doi.gov

Friday, July 28  
Hike with area veterans (closed to press)​​
Meeting​s​ with the Mescalero Apache​, Fort Sill Tribe, and Friends of Organ Mountains Desert Peaks ​ (closed to press)

Saturday, July 29
Hike and Horseback ride with Senators Heinrich and Udall (closed to press)

Update: Added quote from U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce.