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Crowd packs meeting on Organ Monument

LAS CRUCES — U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and several hundred others packed a Ramada hotel ballroom to hear opinions on a proposal to designate a ribbon of land in southern New Mexico a national monument.

Two competing legislative proposals would designate the Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces a monument. While one is limited to 50,000 acres around the iconic jagged peaks of the Organs, another would broaden the designation to nearly 500,000 acres including the Uvas, Potrillo, Doña Ana and Robledo mountains across Doña Ana county.

As a cabinet member, Jewell’s visit is seen as especially critical given the gridlock in Congress, which has not made a conservation decision in years. President Barack Obama has the authority under the Antiquities Act to sign a national monument into being — and skip the legislature altogether.

“We’ve gone the congressional route,” said Joel Gay, spokesman of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “We think it’s time for the president to use his authority.”

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, have proposed legislation that would make 498,815 acres of Doña Ana County a national monument and establish within it 241,067 acres of more tightly restricted wilderness. Rep. Steve Pearce has introduced a bill that would protect about 50,000 acres around the Organ mountains.

Rancher Jerry Schickedanz spoke to the crowd in favor of Pearce’s smaller proposal, “just the Organ mountains.”

“There is a large-scale disagreement for protection of other lands in Doña County,” he said.