LAS CRUCES – Cheers and jeers erupted at a packed public meeting Friday in which U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell heard opinions for and against proposals to designate a ribbon of land in southern New Mexico a national monument.
Two competing legislative bills 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 in Doña Ana county.
As a Cabinet member, Jewell’s visit is seen as especially critical given the gridlock in Congress. President Barack Obama has the authority under the Antiquities Act to sign a national monument into being, bypassing the Congress altogether.
“We’ve gone the congressional route,” said Joel Gay, spokesman for 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 separate bill that would protect about 50,000 acres around the Organ mountains only.
“Several tribes including ours have a special love for the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks,” Rafael Gomez, a member of the tribal council of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, told Jewell. “We hope President Obama designates the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks for our children and our grandchildren.”
Jerry Schickedanz, representing the Western Heritage Alliance, spoke in favor of Pearce’s proposal: “just the Organ mountains,” he called it.
“There is a large-scale disagreement for protection of other lands in Doña County,” he said.
Several hundred people packed a Ramada hotel ballroom to share their viewpoints, and dozens were called upon to stand and briefly speak. Realtors, activists, students, residents, retirees and veterans all spoke their mind.
Applause and shouts accompanied nearly every comment, both for and against the broader monument footprint.
Those in favor repeatedly cited the need to protect the lands from development, while those against spoke about federal government overreach and the need to protect private property.
“This is an effort to shape a president’s proclamation,” said rancher Stephen Wilmeth, who said the monument footprint should be restricted to the Organ Mountains.
A few children spoke, as well. In a moment that seemed to unite the crowd, one youngster presented Jewell with a rock she found while hiking to be used “as a paperweight.”
To close the two-hour meeting, Jewell asked for a show of hands in the somewhat thinned crowd: who supported no monument at all, a smaller monument or a larger monument – and the last show of hands won by far.
Jewell, who hiked in the Uvas mountains earlier in the day, said after the session, “One thing that was consistent in anybody that spoke was how special this part of the country is and how deeply connected people feel to the land.”