Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
LAS CRUCES – With the jagged peaks of the Organ Mountains in the background, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Thursday that he is keeping an open mind as he reviews whether to shrink the size of two national monuments in New Mexico, among others across the country.
And he climbed aboard a helicopter at Fort Bliss to aid in his review, taking a 90-minute tour by air over the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico.
It was beautiful, he said, but the area of the monument – it’s actually four separate parcels – is a “little disconnected,” Zinke told reporters gathered for a news conference at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum.
“The boundaries are difficult to discern – between private, public, state lands,” he said. “The features, as a geologist, I was particularly fascinated with the basalts and the volcanics – beautiful ground.”
Zinke’s visit to New Mexico, which continues through Saturday, is part of a review ordered by President Donald Trump – who wants the secretary’s recommendation on whether to decrease the size of large national monuments created since 1996.
Two monuments are under review in New Mexico – the Rio Grande del Norte in Taos County and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in Doña Ana County. Both were set aside for protection by former President Barack Obama.
About 40 protesters gathered outside the ranching museum Thursday, carrying signs that urged Zinke to leave the boundaries intact. The secretary’s news conference, however, was open only to reporters, not the public.
He also met privately with ranchers, landowners and other stakeholders earlier in the day. The Interior Department wouldn’t reveal who met with Zinke in the private meetings.
Among those kept out of Thursday’s news conference was Billy Garrett, a Dona Aña County commissioner whose district includes downtown Las Cruces.
Establishing the monument took at least 10 years of work, he said, to get the boundaries just right. The protections offered by monument status ensure that the land is available for hiking, hunting, camping, bird-watching and other uses, he said.
“You cannot reduce the monument without losing the protections that go with the monument” status, Garrett said.
Garrett, a Democrat, added that he was disappointed he hadn’t been able to meet with Zinke on Thursday.
“I’m not sure he’s getting an objective view,” Garrett said.
Zinke, in speaking to reporters, disputed that notion. It’s impossible in one visit to meet with everyone, he said, but he’s trying to talk to elected officials and others with a stake in the monument boundaries.
Supporters of keeping the boundaries intact, meanwhile, held a town hall meeting in Las Cruces later Thursday that they said attracted 500 people. Zinke was invited but didn’t attend, they said.
Zinke, a Republican, is scheduled to hike and ride horses on Saturday in northern New Mexico’s Sabinoso Wilderness – which is not one of the areas whose size is being evaluated – with Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico, both of whom oppose downsizing the state’s two monuments in question.
“I try to come in open-minded and listen to all views,” Zinke said.
Trump – in ordering Zinke this year to review monuments across the country – said that in some cases the monuments amounted to a “massive land grab” by the federal government.
Monument status protects the lands from development. The status also includes limits on mining, timber cutting and recreational activities, such as riding off-road vehicles. Cattle grazing is allowed.
Petroglyphs, archaeological sites and wildlife habitat are among the resources protected in the New Mexico monuments.
Zinke said he understands that monument status offers important protections, but even if the boundaries are changed, he suggested the lands will remain public.
“We’re not advocates for selling or transferring public land,” he said.
By law, Zinke said, the monument must be small enough to protect only the historic resources or “objects” that need the protection and not stretch beyond that.
In any case, it was good, he said, to see the Organ Mountains firsthand.
“These monuments in New Mexico are vastly different than monuments that we’ve looked at in even the neighboring states,” he said.
Zinke, a former congressman from Montana, said he understands the responsibility to make a wise recommendation to the president. A decision is due by Aug. 24.
“It’s not a partisan issue,” Zinke said. “This is an American issue.
“Our public lands belong to all of us. We want to make sure the access to our public lands, the use of our public lands, benefits us – and when I say ‘us,’ I mean the American people. It belongs to all of us.”