December 21, 2012
Las Cruces Sun News
In a little more than two weeks, S1024 — the Organ Mountains-Doña Ana County Conservation and Protection Act — will die when the second session of the 112th Congress comes to an end.
At the same time, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the sponsor of the bill, will step down after serving in the Senate for three decades. While his replacement, Sen.-elect Martin Heinrich, has expressed support for the proposed local national monument and could pick up the cause, he will do so as a freshman, not as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
All of which suggests a legislative solution to the issue of federal public lands protection in Doña Ana County is simply out of reach, and will likely continue to be for some time. Bingaman will go down as one of the Senate’s great champions for the preservation of public lands. But even with his leadership, this Congress will recess without adding a single acre of wilderness protection to federal lands.
It is becoming increasing clear that if the public lands in and around Las Cruces are to be granted national monument status, it will have to come from President Obama using his authority under the Antiquities Act to do so without the participation of Congress.
In a letter sent to Obama in October, Bingaman and Sen. Tom Udall both urged him to do just that. They weren’t giving up on the legislation, Udall said at the time, but they understood the realities of our current divided government.
Backers of the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument released poll results recently showing that 83 percent of all voters support the planned monument and only 10 percent oppose it. While those numbers were likely skewed by the wording of the question, there is little doubt as to the widespread support for preserving our most scenic and historically significant lands for future generations to enjoy.
That preservation effort should start with the Organs, but it should not end there. The petroglyph sites in Valles Canyon and spread throughout the Sierra de Las Uvas Mountains; the Aden Lava Flow and Aden Crater; Kilbourne Hole; the Butterfield Stage Trail and other areas around Las Cruces should be included as well.
National monument status would not close off these lands, as some have feared. Nor would it prevent Border Patrol officers from doing their jobs to secure the border. Existing land protections legislated by Congress would still remain in place, but new protection would be added for areas not now covered.
Exact boundaries of the monument would be laid out by the president, with input from the secretary of the Interior and local stakeholders.
Along with protecting and preserving the lands, a national monument would also draw new attention to the sites, creating an economic benefit as well.
The Doña Ana County Commission and Las Cruces City Council are both on record in support of the monument. Obama should give great weight to that local support as he considers this request.