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Interior Secretary Jewell visits New Mexico

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is in southern New Mexico for a hike through a rugged stretch of desert.

Jewell is also here to discuss federal legislation that aims to protect the Organ Mountains along with other scenic areas near the U.S.-Mexico border, an effort that has been more than a decade in the making.

Several hundred people were expected to join Jewell, officials with the Bureau of Land Management and New Mexico’s two U.S. senators for a public hearing Friday afternoon in Las Cruces to talk about the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

Under the latest iteration of the legislation, about 780 square miles bordering parts of Las Cruces would be designated as a monument. It would include eight new wilderness areas spread among the Organs east of the city, the Portillo Mountains to the south and the Sierra de las Uvas and Robledo ranges to the northwest.

“The Organ Mountains and surrounding area form a beautiful and iconic backdrop for Las Cruces and are beloved by New Mexicans,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said when he and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced the legislation in December. “Our bill would help ensure local families and visitors will continue to be able to hike, hunt and learn from the thousands of significant historic sites throughout the hills for generations to come.”

The problem, according to some law enforcement officers, is the bill doesn’t adequately address public safety.

The Southwestern Border Sheriffs’ Coalition, which represents more than two dozen sheriffs’ offices along the border, is leading the charge against the legislation.

Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison, the group’s chairman, said he has concerns about drug cartels, gangs and other illegal activity in the area.

“This law would make a difficult task even more difficult in controlling the border and protecting the homeland,” Garrison said in a letter to the senators.

Supporters of the legislation have dismissed the sheriffs’ concerns, pointing to a clause in the bill that would allow federal the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to continue with border-security activities. The military would also be allowed to continue training flights over the proposed monument.

The sheriffs argue that Customs and Border Protection agents are not peace officers and the Bureau of Land Management, which would oversee the new monument, has not had a law officer in the area in more than five years.