LAS CRUCES – The hikers stopped short on the trail to watch a herd of mule deer move across grasses at the hem of the Organ Mountains, on land newly protected as a national monument.
It was a quiet moment Friday during an otherwise celebratory trek: Interior Secretary Sally Jewell arrived from Washington, D.C., to hike a small slice of the 496,000 acres of Doña Ana County now officially known as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
President Barack Obama signed the monument into existence this week, effectively protecting from future development all the federal lands within the footprint. The monument covers five mountain ranges, including the iconic Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces and rugged terrain south and west of the city.
Hiking a trail to a spot known as Dripping Springs – now dry from drought – Jewell described what distinguishes the region.
“When you come to New Mexico, it’s just completely different,” she said, comparing the landscape to her native Washington state. “Brilliant blue skies and a desert landscape, which I think is beautiful in its starkness and with dramatic geologic features that aren’t behind the trees, as they are in the Northwest.”
Later, Jewell celebrated the new monument designation with local leaders and residents at a high school.
The monument encompasses federal acreage managed by the Bureau of Land Management but is also spotted intermittently with some 70,000 acres of commercially viable state land that is not protected by the designation. State Land Commissioner Ray Powell has said that a land swap – a trade of state parcels inside the monument for federal lands closer to the urban footprint – is critical to safeguarding the monument.
That discussion, as well as public talks on the development of a management plan, can now begin in earnest.
The BLM in Las Cruces manages some 5 million acres across five counties, according to Tom Phillips, BLM supervisor for recreation and cultural resources. He says a management plan will look at what infrastructure may be needed to draw in visitors, such as trails, maps or signage – currently lacking.
“It’s pretty exciting to see the attention to an area that we know is pretty special,” Phillips said. “We’ve been managing it as a natural area, and the public really enjoys it. Now we have an increased, heightened interest.”
Phillips led the early morning hike around Dripping Springs and, along with BLM Park Ranger McKinney Briske, answered Jewell’s questions about wildlife, geology and the fire cycle.
“To be able to protect something like this as a monument is the sort of thing I knew happened on occasion,” Jewell said. “It’s just a real blessing to have this happen while I’m in this job. It’s pretty major.”
The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is the second and the largest monument set aside in New Mexico by Obama, following the designation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument last year.