Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
LAS CRUCES – Cattle ranchers and a coalition of border sheriffs led by Doña Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison say they oppose the latest plan to designate the Organ Mountains and a swath of rugged land in the county as a national monument.
Both express skepticism over what they see as the increased federal restrictions and control that would come with a monument designation, although for different reasons. For the sheriff, security is the top concern. For the ranchers, a deep-seated mistrust of the federal government makes them wary of a proposal that would shift the status quo.
Garrison, on behalf of 31 sheriffs belonging to the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition, has sent a letter to U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, opposing their proposed legislation, which would protect as a national monument nearly half a million acres including the Organ, Doña Ana, Potrillo, Robledo and Uvas mountains – a plan that has otherwise won broad support in Doña Ana County.
The senators’ proposal would make 498,815 acres – slightly more than 20 percent of Doña Ana County – a national monument and establish within it eight areas of more tightly restricted wilderness totaling 241,067 acres.
The senators say their plan – which has garnered diverse backing from wilderness advocates, business people, sportsmen, a faith-based coalition and others – takes pains to improve law enforcement’s ability to secure the border region and allows ranchers to continue to graze livestock.
“It’s going to tie up a huge portion of land that is going to create an avenue of access for illegal activity,” Garrison said, referring to illegal immigration and drug trafficking from Mexico. “It’s already happening in Arizona. Why would we think it’s not going to happen here?”
In the letter and in an interview, Garrison says he worries the plan would curb deputies’ access to the monument area and open the door to increased cross-border crime.
Heinrich and Udall say both federal and local law enforcement will have access to patrol both the monument and wilderness areas. As an example, they say nearly all the existing roads in the proposed monument and wilderness areas have been “cherry-stemmed” out. That’s to ensure Border Patrol agents and sheriff’s deputies, along with ranchers, hunters and others can access hard-to-reach areas by vehicle.
The legislation does not alter law enforcement jurisdictions.
Still, Garrison points to troubles faced by a different national monument near the border, the Organ Pipes National Monument in Arizona, where drug smuggling has been an issue in the past. The monument website reports that, while a vehicle barrier at the border has stopped nearly all the off-road traffic, the website still warns visitors that “illegal border crossings and activities, including drug smuggling, occur daily.”
Currently, the sheriff says his agency does about 15 patrols a month in the rugged rangeland between Interstate 10 and the border with Mexico, an area that includes the East and West Potrillo mountains, and north of I-10 in the Uvas mountains region.
Ranchers who graze cattle on patchworks of federal, state and private lands in the area south and west of Las Cruces say they oppose the legislation despite language in the bill that would allow those with existing rights to continue grazing. They voice concern that a monument designation would further restrict their activities and open the door to greater federal control in the future – especially if a proposed land swap, separate to the legislation, facilitates an exchange of state lands for federal lands in the monument.
Restrictions on federal lands make doing basic ranch work, such as building fences or developing water troughs, more onerous than on state land, they say. While the senators’ aides note that national monument and wilderness designations only apply to federal lands – not to the state-owned or privately held parcels that are speckled through the proposed monument area – the ranchers fret about a possible trade-out.
Much of the area is already a Wilderness Study Area and has been so since the 1980s, giving it “enough restrictions to protect this land forever,” said Dudley Williams, who runs three ranches in the area totaling some 210,000 acres. “It does not need any other designation.”
Advocates for the legislation note that land designated wilderness will be governed by essentially the same restrictions it has had for more than 30 years as a Wilderness Study Area and suggest little will change.
Still, the ranchers say their needs haven’t been met.
“I’m concerned about (the government) ultimately reducing my ability to do anything to the point that I can’t make a living,” said Stephen Wilmeth, who operates the Lazy E and Butterfield ranches on 56,000 acres of state, federal and private lands.
It’s a concern he says is rooted in past experiences. He later added, “For the most part, there is dismissive response to us.”
Work in progress
Udall said the wording of the legislation is a result of “an intensive grassroots effort to engage all the stakeholders.”
“Our legislation is a starting point, not a final say,” he said. “We’re open to any changes that might be needed.”
The New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce last week said it will send a letter to President Barack Obama requesting he bypass Congress. Gridlock in Congress could prevent action on the bill, the letter says.
The president has the power to designate national monuments under the Antiquities Act.
The creation of a national monument in the region has been hotly debated for years, with proposals ranging from a much smaller 50,000 or so acres of the Organ mountains, in a bill proposed by Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., to the senators’ more recent proposal – by far the most ambitious in terms of footprint.
“We think there is really broad and deep support for the legislation as introduced by the senators,” said Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, which has advocated for the designation. “I think the opposition, while increasingly vocal after (the bill’s) introduction, is a slim part of the total.”
David Soules, an avid hiker and bird hunter, says he came to support the current monument proposal after he saw it would maintain public access. As a board member of the Wildlife Alliance, he says he has heard the ranchers’ concerns.
“What they want is consistent with conservation,” he said. “They don’t want new highways, or mining or wind farms on top of the mountains. It would be wonderful to work through the differences but celebrate the things that are common ground.”