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Editorial: NM monuments: Love them & leave them be

New Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is in the Land of Enchantment today, the latest stop on his save-it-or-shrink-it monument tour.

And if historical, cultural, geographical and environmental importance don’t convince him to keep Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces and Rio Grande del Norte National Monument west of Questa just the way they are, then the wide and deep groundswell of public support should. Because in this highly partisan world, it’s hard to argue with something that has the backing of 16 local government bodies; multiple chambers of commerce; several Indian tribes and pueblos; 375-plus businesses; hunting, fishing and environmental groups; and dozens of civic organizations.

Designation as a national monument adds protections that aren’t as stringent as national parks, but include limits on mining, timber cutting and recreational activities, such as riding off-road vehicles. Both N.M. monuments had broad public support even before they were formally designated by former President Obama in 2013 and 2014.

In fact, there has been little public opposition to Rio Grande del Norte, which, at 242,500 acres, includes the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge and Ute Mountain, as well as petroglyphs, archaeological sites, rare plants and wildlife habitats, vast recreation and hunting areas, and cultural resources ranging from ancient inhabitants to Spanish settlers.

But U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce has voiced loud opposition to the current size of the 496,330-acre Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks, which is in his congressional district. He wants the monument reduced by 88 percent, a position supported by some local ranchers.

President Donald Trump and Pearce have labeled the monument designations a “federal land grab” because Obama used his executive power to designate them after Congress was unable to pass legislation doing so. Further, Pearce believes Obama failed to comply with the federal Antiquities Act when he created the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks monument to encompass an overarching area rather than specific sites of historical and scientific interest. Pearce cites a clause that calls for the smallest footprint needed to protect special assets.

Now Zinke is following a Trump directive to review every national monument created after 1996 that encompass more than 100,000 acres.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is actually four separate parcels of land around Las Cruces. They encompass not only the Organ Mountains, but also the Portillo, Sierra de Las Uvas, Robledo and Doña Ana mountains. They contain hundreds of cultural and historic sites: petroglyphs; stagecoach routes; unique archaeological sites, including a crater where Apollo astronauts trained for moon landings; Civilian Conservation Corps projects; habitat for mountain lions, bighorn sheep, mule deer, javelina, quail and the protected Aplomado falcon; and wilderness study areas.

Pearce’s proposal would limit the protection to the Organ Mountains.

Ranchers in the area fear gradual limitations might eventually drive them out, but cattle-grazing has continued undiminished within the monument boundaries – as it has on monuments across the nation for decades.

Pearce points to a stack of signed petitions to support his stance; unfortunately, the petition is from 2010 and doesn’t include the word “monument” or the proposal to shrink it. It just says signatories “support permanently protecting the special areas in our county while preserving a meaningful balance between environmental protection, conservation, water resource management, law enforcement, Homeland Security, community development, recreation, and respect for private property rights.”

Meanwhile, there’s broad public support in each surrounding community for keeping the monuments as they are.

The southern N.M. monument has been, and continues to be, supported by the Doña Ana County Commission; the cities of Las Cruces, El Paso, Mesilla and Anthony; the Fort Sill Apache Tribe; Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and the All Pueblo Council of Governments; 16 sportsmen’s groups; 30 faith leaders; 40 civic organizations; 225 area businesses; and a Las Cruces Democratic state representative and senator.

Rio Grande del Norte has been backed by the governing bodies of the city, county and pueblo of Taos, as well as Santa Fe, Questa, Taos Ski Valley, Red River and the San Antonio de Rio Colorado Land Grant. In addition, local business groups, more than 150 local businesses, five sportsmen’s groups, seven environmental groups and five community groups support it as established.

Even seven cattle ranchers have come out in support of keeping the monuments in their current state, and the oil and gas industry has no objections to them other than to say it is important they are the right size.

In a June 15 letter to Zinke lobbying for leaving the two monuments alone, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and U.S. Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján (all Democrats) note visitation at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks has increased 152 percent since its designation and it has generated millions of dollars in additional economic activity in the area.

Supporters of Rio Grande del Norte offer similar statistics on public support and economic growth.

Secretary Zinke is scheduled to spend the next few days in New Mexico. Recognizing the groundswell of local support for the two monuments should lead him to the only answer:

Leave New Mexico’s new monuments fully intact.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.