ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When President Barack Obama visits Carlsbad Caverns to celebrate the National Park Service centennial, he is likely to tout another conservation milestone: his own record of protecting more land and water than any other president in history.
Obama has used his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to place more than 265 million acres of land and sea into 22 protected monuments from California to Virginia – including a combined 738,500 acres in New Mexico’s new Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments.
The scope of Obama’s effort has been cheered by supporters as an enduring conservationist legacy but derided by critics as an illegitimate land grab of historic proportions. There is a concern on both sides that the federal government can’t afford to take care of the nation’s existing monuments and parks, which are suffering under a multibillion-dollar backlog of maintenance.
“I think (Obama) will be remembered as a conservation champion,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, which represents hunters and anglers.
Protecting landscapes “is an exercise in humility,” he said. “Leaving certain things the way they are and preserving those things – that is the right thing to do.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., has described Obama’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument designation as a government land grab that will hinder economic progress in the 2nd Congressional District. Pearce had proposed legislation that would have designated just 58,000 acres of the rugged terrain as a national monument.
In sheer acreage, Obama’s public lands program tops that of pioneering conservationist Theodore Roosevelt, who protected about 230 million acres of public land in national forests, bird and game preserves and 18 national monuments. Roosevelt enabled the act that presidents have used ever since to shape their public lands legacy. President George W. Bush designated just two national monuments: the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York and the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Obama designated the 242,500-acre Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in 2013 in northern New Mexico, bolstered by broad community support, including from the Taos Pueblo, ranchers and sportsmen.
The 2014 designation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument after a decade of grass-roots activism was far more contentious and was vocally opposed by ranchers, border sheriffs and some conservative Las Cruces residents. The Bureau of Land Management – a division of the Department of Interior – manages some of the national monuments in New Mexico and elsewhere in the United States.
“I think it’s a debacle to use the Antiquities Act for these large-scale land grabs,” said Stephen Wilmeth, whose 56,000-acre Lazy E and Butterfield ranches are partly within the monument in Doña Ana County.
Wilmeth said that nothing has changed yet but that he opposes the current restrictions of his federal grazing leases and expects more restrictions will be piled on as the Bureau of Land Management establishes its plan for the monument.
“We have an absentee owner who tells us what to do and when to do it and restricts us from parallel enterprises,” he said.
The 9,000-foot Organ Mountains rise like a rocky pipe organ and create an iconic backdrop to Las Cruces. The other “desert peaks” in the monument include the Robledo, Uvas and Potrillo mountains and feature prehistoric tracks, petroglyphs and wildlife including mule deer, javelina, cougar, ringtail cat and quail.
The river for which the Rio Grande del Norte monument is named flows through deep canyons topped by plains at 7,000 feet of elevation. There are elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer and 66 miles of “premier wild trout stream,” VeneKlasen said.
Pearce told the Journal that he welcomes Obama’s visit to New Mexico but that it doesn’t make sense to keep adding more land to the federal inventory when the National Park Service alone has a $12 billion backlog of maintenance that it can’t afford to complete.
Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall – both New Mexico Democrats – cheered Obama’s national monument designations in the state, and they are now seeking more restrictive “wilderness” protections within the Organ Mountains monument area.
Heinrich said Obama’s decision to visit the caverns to highlight the National Park Service anniversary is a “great opportunity to tell a New Mexico story in a way that will hopefully bear fruit down the road from people who see the (media) coverage and say, ‘Hey, maybe we should take our summer vacation in New Mexico.’ ”
The Taos and Las Cruces Green Chambers of Commerce say tourism connected with the new monuments has had a positive economic impact on their local communities.
The Taos green chamber reported that in the six months after the monument designation, the town had a 21 percent jump in lodgers tax revenue and an 8 percent increase in gross receipts from the accommodation and food service sector as visitors to the monument surged.
Two conferences have come to Las Cruces and another is scheduled for September specifically linked to the monument, bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic impact through hotel stays, food purchases, shopping and entertainment, said Las Cruces green chamber executive Ddirector Carrie Hamblen.
But Heinrich and Pearce both point out that the country’s national parks and monuments are struggling under the weight of crumbling infrastructure. For example, a passenger elevator at Carlsbad was out of service for months earlier this year.
“The recent federal budget challenges have been very hard on the National Park Service,” Heinrich said, adding, “I think it’s time – especially in the 100th anniversary of the park service – to make investments in these parks.”