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Senators Seek To Protect 2 N.M. Sites

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The Rio Grande Gorge, shown here where it is crossed by the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge north of Taos, would become part of a larger national monument if a request by New Mexico’s two U.S. senators is granted by President Barack Obama. (JOURNAL FILE)

A large swath of northern New Mexico would become a national monument based around the Rio Grande Gorge under a new proposal by the state’s two U.S. senators.

Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall also are asking President Barack Obama to designate the Organ Mountains in the south part of the state as a national monument. The Democratic senators want a much bigger Organ Mountains monument than one proposed by Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce.

The senators, who are sponsors of pending legislation that would elevate the Rio Grande Gorge and Organ Mountain sites to national conservation and wilderness areas, wrote a letter to Obama asking him to use his authority to establish the sites as national monuments instead because a congressional logjam has made it difficult to pass their bill.

“New Mexicans on every level, from grass-roots campaigns to mayors and county commissioners, have expressed their support for the protection of these special places,” Udall and Bingaman’s letter to the president stated.

In absence of the passage of any legislation, the senators asked the president to work with local communities to explore how the national monument designation would “protect the archeological and cultural resources in these two regions.”

National monument status would allow the lands and their wildlife habitat to be protected while preserving existing uses such as hunting, fishing and grazing, the senators said in a news release.

Other national monuments in New Mexico include White Sands, Bandelier, Gila Cliff Dwellings and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks.

Presidents have authority to designate national monuments under the federal Antiquities Act.

Last year, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee supported legislation sponsored by Udall and Bingaman called the Río Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act.

That bill would protect about 236,000 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Taos and Rio Arriba counties, including much of the scenic Rio Grande Gorge as well Ute Mountain near the Colorado border north of Taos, by designating a combination of conservation and wilderness areas. But the bill has stalled since the committee action.

The senators are also the sponsors of a bill which seeks to create wilderness and conservation areas in Doña Ana County to protect the Organ Mountains and the volcanic cinder cones of the Potrillo Mountains, among other public lands in the county. There would be 241,000 acres of wilderness and 100,000 acres of national conservation area.

Republican Pearce is supporting a less restrictive national monument bill for the Organ Mountains, which are part of his southern New Mexico congressional district.

Pearce’s monument bill would protect about 58,500 acres of the Organ Mountains from development, only about a quarter of the acreage proposed for conservation or wilderness designations by the Democratic senators.

Pearce has said his bill is a good compromise between conservationists and ranchers who are sometimes on opposite sides of the issue.

“We’re basically trying to protect what we all think of as the Organs from development, but still allow broader access,” Pearce said.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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