WASHINGTON – Neither Democrats nor the lone Republican in New Mexico’s congressional delegation were happy Monday with the recommendations in an Interior Department report that suggests possible management changes for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte national monuments in New Mexico, but not reductions in their size.
Each side had different reasons for disliking the recommendation.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a Journal interview Monday that while he was glad Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke didn’t suggest that President Donald Trump shrink New Mexico’s monuments, he was disappointed in the secretary’s push to change their management plans. He called Zinke’s report – leaked to the national media late Sunday – “rushed and sloppy,” while characterizing it as a “solution in search of a problem.”
“You’ve got to get the details right if the report is to have credibility,” Heinrich said, citing examples of facts and assumptions in the report about both monuments that he said were incorrect.
An Interior Department official told the Journal the report is an “internal draft” not meant for release to the public.
Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, also echoed complaints from New Mexico environmental and conservation groups who said some of the monument management protocols that Zinke’s report aimed to correct have already been settled, but only after years of public negotiation by surrounding communities.
Republican Rep. Steve Pearce also blasted Zinke’s report. Pearce, who represents the Las Cruces area, where the Organ Mountains monument is located, said he was frustrated that Zinke did not suggest reducing the nearly half-million-acre monument’s size, and that failing to do so would cause economic harm in the area.
“This decision blatantly ignores local businesses, Border Patrol agents and outdoorsmen to protect sites that should not be protected under the Antiquities Act,” Pearce said, referring the century-old law that gave former President Obama power to establish the monument without consent of Congress.
A crowd of several dozen people, many representing environmental and wilderness advocacy groups and Native American tribes and pueblos, gathered in Downtown Albuquerque on Monday evening to protest Zinke’s report. Several speakers said over a loudspeaker that New Mexicans overwhelmingly support the monuments, which have been an economic boost to the state by attracting visitors.
“We got the monuments, and what do we do? We made them a success,” Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces), said during the demonstration. “And then what happens? The Trump review.”
Some speakers questioned what effect changes to management practices would have on the monuments.
“We are very concerned about recommendations to open up some of these lands to uses like logging and mining and potentially drilling, which would negate all the reasons for which they were protected in the first place,” said Judy Calman, staff attorney for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “If harm does come to our monuments, we are prepared to protect them with legal action.”
The confidential monuments review, which Zinke sent to the White House last month, was leaked to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal late Sunday. Interior officials and White House spokeswoman Kelly Love declined to comment on the report or say when a final White House decision on Zinke’s monuments recommendations may be forthcoming.
Four national monuments not in New Mexico, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah, along with Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, would be reduced in size under Zinke’s recommendations.
Zinke suggested altering management of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument – including an area containing the Potrillo Mountains – partly to address concerns about securing the U.S. border with Mexico.
“The DOI (Department of Interior) should work with the Department of Homeland Security to assess border safety risks associated with the Potrillo Mountains Complex,” the report states.
Zinke also suggested amending the Organ Mountains monument “to, among other things, lift motorized restrictions in areas close to the U.S.-Mexican border for national security reasons.”
The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County could also undergo management changes if the White House adopts Zinke’s recommendations. The report noted that “road closures due to monument restrictions have left many grazing permittees choosing not to renew permits.”
Heinrich said the report makes reference to roads being closed, but “that’s not true,” in the case of the Rio Grande monument near Taos.
“We confirmed that today,” Heinrich said.
Zinke does not make any specific recommendations to the Rio Grande monument, but does say the proclamation establishing both New Mexico monuments should be amended to “protect objects and prioritize pubic access, infrastructure repairs, repair and maintain traditional uses, tribal and cultural use and hunting and fishing rights.” Critics of the report contend the language about “traditional uses” may be an effort to resume logging, oil drilling and other activities now prohibited under national monument protections.
Despite the bipartisan complaints in Washington on Monday, if the White House decides to take Zinke’s suggestion and make only access and management changes to New Mexico’s two newest monuments – instead of reductions in size – it would allay the worst fears of environmental and outdoor recreation enthusiasts who opposed any changes at all.
“While this national monument review never should have been ordered, the fact that Department of Interior Secretary Zinke is not recommending boundary reductions for either Rio Grande del Norte or Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks must be seen as a direct result of the overwhelming community support the administration heard from New Mexicans,” the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance said in a statement Monday.
The Organ Mountains monument was widely considered more likely to face changes than the Rio Grande Del Norte monument, although some northern New Mexico ranchers have said federal restrictions on land use in the north hurt their way of life.
Zinke visited New Mexico last month to tour the Organ Mountains monument, and heard mostly support for keeping both New Mexico monuments as they are.