LAS CRUCES - Three years ago, President Barack Obama declared theOrgan Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument after decades of grassroots efforts and lobbying in Washington, D.C. Its 496,330 acres now surround Las Cruces, encompassing the Organ Mountains and the Robledo Mountains, Sierra de las Uvas, Doña Ana Mountains and Portrillo Mountains which comprise the Desert Peaks.
Its landscapes stretch from Chihuahuan desert to the Organ's craggy vertical peaks reaching 9,000 feet into the New Mexico sky. Created under thefederal Antiquities Act, it protects natural and archaeological treasures dating to the Spanish colonial era, and records left by native people even earlier in history.
OMDP has become the focus of national exposure in newspapers, magazines, online publications and travel and tourism journals across the country and internationally. Girl Scouts can now earn a patch for taking part in activities at the monument. Its name graces clothing and business logos around the city.
Its proximity to White Sands National Monument and the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument create a tourism official's dream, offering three national monuments within an hour’s drive, said Chris Faivre, director of marketing and communications forVisit Las Cruces, formerly the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We’ve always positioned Las Cruces as a collection of all of its offerings. Very much the hub and spoke concept," Faivre said. "We know people are going to come down here and plan to do the farmers market, Mesilla, White Sands ... They will do several things that are all smaller by themselves, but when you put them together it becomes one big, fun experience. The monument just became one of those.”
While an April, 2016 poll showed 61 percent local support for the monument, there has also been strong, well-organized opposition. Now, three years down the road, backers and detractors alike are trying to determine how the designation has changed the local economy.
Tracking the numbers
Estimating the economic impact of the monument’s designation is tricky, though it's likely somewhere between $8.2 million and $33.8 million over three years, depending on how you parse the numbers. The BLM does not track visitors to the entire monument, just the numbers at the Dripping Springs Natural Area, Aguirre Spring Campground and the Soledad Canyon Day Use Area — all three in the Organ Mountains. Visits to those three sites combined rose from 67,378 in the 2013-14 fiscal year to 84,197 in 14-15 and 170,451 in 15-16 — a 152 percent increase from the first year of designation to the third year.
The only charge for spending time in OMDP is a $5 day-use fee at Dripping Springs and Aguirre Spring and $7 fee for overnight camping at Aguirre Spring. Tracking what visitors spent beyond those fees is problematic. Did they eat in our restaurants or stay in our hotels? Or, were they simply Las Crucens taking a short hike in the monument?
Visit Las Cruces uses a $45-per-person, per-day figure when estimating the local economic impact of an event. Adjusting for the fact many monument visitors are from nearby communities and wouldn’t need lodging, a more conservative figure of $35 per person — on gas, day-use fees, guide fees if part of a tour, food and drink or lodging if traveling — would be appropriate, said Debbi Moore, president and CEO of the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce.
Given the increase of 16,000 visitors during the second year of the designation and 103,000 in the third, those 119,000 visitors, assuming a $35 per person average, would have spent a little more than $4.1 million in the Las Cruces area. That accounts only for the increased number of visitors to the three check-in sites.
The total number of visitors over the three-year period for the combined three sites is 322,025. That would yield an economic impact of $11.2 million.
Tourism experts and economists consider the money spent by visitors would then be spent again by the businesses or their employees who benefited from the original spending. Typically, this kind of spending rolls over two to three times in the community. Multiplying that $11.2 million by two to three times yields $22.5 million to $33.8 million. Multiplying the spending by the increase in visitors in years two and three of the monument yields an $8.2 million to $12.3 million economic impact.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, who wants to see the size of the monument reduced, has noted a negative economic impact as well. The first casualty of the designation was the moving of the Chile Challenge, an off-road and 4X4 event in the Robledo Mountains that drew $4 million a year to the region, he said. That event now takes place in Sierra County.
Other events have been held in Las Cruces specifically because of the monument's designation, such as the Conservation Lands Foundation meeting held in Las Cruces in 2015. Ben Gabriel, executive director of the Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, estimates more than 300 people traveled to the event, spending four days and nights here.
Using the VLC multiplier of $45 per-person, per-day for out-of-town guests, it would yield direct spending of $54,000 for that event alone.
Those types of events, where participants can be counted, are needed to better gauge the impact of the monument on the economy, said Carrie Hamblen, president and CEO of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce.
Hamblen points to a report by theOutdoor Industry Associationthat shows outdoor recreation in New Mexico generates $6.1 billion in consumer spending annually; is responsible for 68,000 jobs totaling $1.7 billion in wages and salaries; and contributes $458 million in state and local tax revenue.
Visit Las Cruces’ Faivre said the city’s lodger’s tax, a measure of tourism, has grown steadily since the designation. In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the city collected $1.87 million. That number rose to $1.95 million the following year and $2.04 million in 2015-2016.
“Can we directly correlate that (to the monument designation)? No,” the Friends’ Gabriel said. “But is it part of why we are seeing increased visitation and tourism? Our governor (Susana Martinez) is touting these numbers and theNew Mexico Truecampaign. That’s been so significant. Even our governor agrees that’s a huge thing for our economy.”
Faivre said inquiries about OMDP to the VLC web site have grown from 2,031 page views in 2013 to 10,382 in 2016.
“What we’ve seen is that, since it became a national monument, interest in people searching for it on our website has gone up,” Faivre said.
Boon for businesses
The Green Chamber has distributed tool kits marketing the national monument to 50 local businesses, many of which have opened businesses or OMDP-branded products ranging from coffee blends to cupcakes and outdoor gear to guided tours.
David Crider, owner ofSouthwest Expeditions, has reported more interest in outdoor tourism. He has expanded his services to add mountain biking tours and has stepped up marketing efforts nationally. Businesses includingHappy Dog,Luchador,Beck’s Coffee,Let Them Eat Cake Inc.,Milagro Coffee Y Espresso, and others have branded their offerings in recognition of the monument.Outback a’Horsebackoffers trail rides within the monument.
“I’m just excited that more businesses are seeing that, even if sounds kind of kitschy to just rename a product, what they may or may not understand is that is showing their investment in the community as a business,” Hamblen said. “Saying ‘I have this monument in my back yard. I’m releasing this new line of wines. I’m going to go ahead and cross brand it.’ It’s not hurting them any. It’s not doing any damage to the monument. It’s a business becoming very creative in how they market their product, and I love that.”
Organ Mountain Outfittersnot only brands to the monument, but also donates a portion of sales to fund school lunches. The popularity of trail runs, bikepacking and guided and interpretive hikes have blossomed.
Other businesses have benefited as well.
Wayne Suggs, an avid photographer and owner ofClassic New Mexico Homes, said sales of his custom homes have gone up in volume and price since the designation. By posting photos of OMDP, interest in his high-end homes has drawn professionals and retirees to the area, he said.
Other home builders who opposed the designation and continue to resist capitalizing on the monument “aren’t using this to this to their advantage,” he said.
RealtorRenee Franksaid the designation has led to people looking for homes close to the monument, and it is now being used as a marketing tool to attract buyers.
“This is an economic story,” said Friends of the OMDP’s Gabriel. “It really diversifies our economy. Our community is no longer reliant on certain industries."
The designation has led the BLM to begin planning infrastructure such as wayfinding signs, trail heads and visitor centers.
Events such as Monuments to Main Street, which is held during September, serve to draw more people to local businesses. The Plein Air Festival encourages artists to engage with the monument in their work. The Sierra Vista trail runs and conferences like the American Rock Art Association and Conservation Lands Foundation add to the year-round opportunities. The Green Chamber’s 31 Days of Monumental Love highlights local businesses taking advantage of the monument in one way or another.
“Economically, its starting to tell a story,” Gabriel said. “Embracing the monument says who we want to be as a community.”