May 20, 2014

Monument Preserve in New Mexico Could be Next Land Rights Battleground

Organ Mountain Desert Peaks National Monument landscape, near Las Cruces, N.M.

By Elliot Jager

President Barack Obama's decision on Wednesday to declare 500,000 acres in southern New Mexico as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument has set the stage for another controversy that pits conservationists against ranchers, The Washington Times reported.

Environmentalists, conservationists, and state tourism officials lauded the decision as bringing more visitors to the state while protecting the area's unique landscape. The monument is home to five mountain ranges, ancient rock art, and is also where the Apollo astronauts trained for their missions.

Ranchers are angry at losing grazing land. Local law enforcement authorities say the new environmental restrictions that come with the monument designation, will make it harder to patrol the area, which is fast becoming a haven for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants.

Sheriff Todd Garrison of Dona Ana County said the designation would leave thousands of acres as pathways "for criminals to get into this country," the Times reported.

The state's two Democratic U.S. senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich back the administration's decision. Heinrich said that the monument will preserve cultural sites and boost tourism, the Times reported.

Republican Rep. Steve Pearce argued that only 50,000 acres should have been declared a monument – not half-a-million, the Times reported. He said the president's action amounted to a "land grab."

Garrison said law enforcement vehicles will face environmental restrictions in patrolling the area, while smugglers will simply disregard the new monument designation.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management will administer the national monument. The U.S. Border Patrol will have limited access to the land when agents are in hot pursuit of smugglers, the Times reported.

Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee's public lands subcommittee, confirmed that environmental restrictions have hampered the Border Patrol. He called on the president to delay the designation until "solutions to existing criminal activities plaguing the border" could be implemented.

While only Congress is authorized to designate a national park, the president may declare national monuments, the Times reported.