ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This past week, President Obama protected 496,000 acres of New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region as a national monument, a victory for the Latino community and our heritage.
This is the third such designation by Obama that celebrates the contributions Hispanics have made to the culture and history of the United States, joining the César E. Chávez and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monuments.
The Latino community in New Mexico has worked for years with a broad coalition to bring attention to and preserve this site’s unique history, and now that hard work has paid off. The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks site has a history with the Latino community dating back to the late 16th century when Spanish explorers established a route that came to be known as “The Chihuahua Trail” or “the Camino Real” from central Mexico to Santa Fe.
Until the 1800s, this trail was a vital connection for New Mexico to the outside world. Eventually the ancient Mexico City-Santa Fe road was revived as a great highway. Since Franciscan missionaries laid the groundwork in 1581, that makes State Highway 85 along this trail possibly the oldest highway in the United States.
The site also served as the historic stage for the resolution of border disputes with Mexico and includes the site of the original U.S.-Mexico border prior to the Gadsden Purchase, the last major territorial acquisition the United States made in the contiguous 48 states.
The monument is supported by a vast array of Hispanic leaders in the state, including former Gov. Jerry Apodaca, former Attorney General Patricia Madrid and dozens of local and regional leaders from nearby Las Cruces and around the state.
The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks also hosts thousands of ancient archaeological sites with unique prehistoric pictographs and training sites for NASA’s Apollo Missions, bringing together pre-American, New Mexican and American history.
Now that the area has been formally protected and recognized nationally, the area’s unique historical and cultural points of interest, along with its spectacular natural beauty, will bring tourism dollars and boost quality of life to the region. An independent economic study found that the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument could generate $7.4 million in new economic activity each year.
Obama, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Sen. Tom Udall and Sen. Martin Heinrich showed great leadership in working with the local community and moving this designation forward, one that honors our country’s diverse people and cultures and celebrates the too-often untold story of our Hispanic heritage. These lands are now protected for Americans from every background to enjoy as a National Monument, where they can hike, camp or hunt, as Hispanic families have done throughout the region for generations.
This designation is also another reminder that Republican leaders in Congress should stop trying to pass legislation to limit the president’s ability to designate these historic sites. Having more options to protect our majestic public lands, not less, is in every American’s best interest.
Mark Magaña is a board member of the League of Conservation Voters.