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No changes to NM monument boundaries

Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke suggested Tuesday that President Donald Trump make no boundary changes for New Mexico’s national monuments, and instead recommended altering their management plans to protect grazing rights and the ability to combat drug traffickers.

Zinke’s recommendations for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte national monuments in New Mexico – and about two dozen other monuments around the country – came on the heels of Trump’s announcement Monday that he would slash the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Escalante Staircase monuments in Utah, also on Zinke’s recommendation.

“My recommendation was not to make any revisions on the boundaries,” of New Mexico’s monuments, Zinke told reporters in a conference call, adding that his decision was based on input from New Mexicans ranging from the congressional delegation to conservationists to traditional grazing advocates and others. “New Mexico was comfortable with the monuments, and I just want to make sure that we have the ability to actively manage the properties in perpetuity.”

That New Mexico’s monuments were spared a downsizing recommendation from the interior secretary came as something of a relief to environmentalists and conservationists in the state and in Washington. But the monuments’ proponents – and Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both D-N.M., – still worried that vague instruction in Zinke’s management suggestions could result in diminished protections in New Mexico. Udall urged advocates of the monuments to keep up pressure on the Trump administration.

“While Secretary Zinke has assured me that he doesn’t plan major changes, the question of New Mexico’s monuments is now in President Trump’s hands,” Udall said. “Until we see what the president will sign, this fight is not over, and New Mexicans should keep calling and writing and making their voices heard.”

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance issued a statement saying, “We believe any changes to the presidential proclamations creating these monuments are unwarranted, unwelcome, and illegal.”

A coalition of the Hopi, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni tribes and the Navajo Nation sued late Monday to challenge the Bears Ears reduction, which cuts monument status for the rugged land in southeastern Utah by about 85 percent. Bears Ears features thousands of Native American artifacts, including prehistoric cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.

The White House told the Journal on Tuesday that it remains unclear when Trump will take final action on Zinke’s New Mexico monument suggestions. While Zinke hasn’t suggested reducing the New Mexico monuments’ size, changes to the proclamation establishing them could potentially reduce some protections put in place when former President Barack Obama established them in New Mexico.

Zinke told reporters Tuesday that some in New Mexico’s agricultural community had expressed concerns that livestock grazing could be curtailed at the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos and that drug smuggling routes were a concern in the area near the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces along New Mexico’s southern border.

“It’s making sure that the proclamation protects the long-standing culture of grazing in those monuments,” Zinke said of his final report to Trump on the monuments. “Along the border, we’re asking for our Border Patrol to give us a review of possible improvements that could be made to make sure they have the right rules in place so they can execute their mission.”

One northern New Mexico ranching group has complained that the monument designation has reduced access to grazing lands. But Sarah Schlanger, Taos Field Office manager for the Bureau of Land Management, said in October that no roads have been closed since the Rio Grande del Norte monument was created and that roads have been maintained as they were previously. Schlanger also said that none of the area’s grazing permittees had failed to renew of grazing permits because of the monument designation. The BLM manages the Rio Grande del Norte.

In the final monuments report released Monday, Zinke suggested that Trump alter the proclamations for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte “to ensure compliance with the provisions and intent of the (Antiquities) Act while also prioritizing public access; infrastructure upgrades, repair, and maintenance; traditional use; tribal cultural use; and hunting and fishing rights.”

Sharon Buccino, director of the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Journal that directive could be subject to broad interpretation.

“On its façade, some of that is good, but what public access means to me is very different than it means to Secretary Zinke,” Buccino said. “It should be access for the many and not for the few to monopolize and destroy. With infrastructure … there are appropriate places for roads and inappropriate places. What you had with Obama’s proclamation was essentially a pause on new road construction.”

Udall and Heinrich on Monday echoed a complaint they made in September when a draft copy of Zinke’s preliminary monuments report was leaked to the media. They contend the interior secretary seems to have relied on misinformation in compiling his suggestions for New Mexico. Heinrich, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Zinke’s report reflects “hearsay and erroneous data.”

“New Mexico’s national monuments are vitally important to our tribes, the economy, and our way of life as Westerners – and Secretary Zinke should know that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Heinrich said.

Meanwhile, Pearce – the lone Republican in New Mexico’s delegation — said he didn’t think Zinke’s recommendations went far enough with respect to the Organ Mountains monument, which is in his district. Pearce had suggested reducing the monument by as much as 88 percent.

“The administration must do more to work with the surrounding communities and governments to respect the serious economic, security, and access concerns raised by the size and complexity of this monument,” Pearce said.