Protecting the Organ Mountains hits home

While I was an undergraduate at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, I often took refuge from hitting the books by hiking the Dripping Springs Trail at the base of the Organ Mountains.  Over the years, I introduced the area to several friends and cousins, many of whom still recount fond memories of hiking the trail, picnicking near the La Cueva rock shelter, and the spectacular views of the Mesilla Valley down below.

To this day, whenever I visit my family in Las Cruces, I can’t leave without a visit to the spectacular Organs, the place which kept me sane during those grueling undergraduate final exams.

The recently re-introduced bill by New Mexico Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, the Organ Mountains – Doña Ana County Conservation and Protection Act (S. 1024), will create 259,000 acres of Wilderness and 100,850 acres of National Conservation Area in Southern New Mexico, providing outstanding recreational opportunities in some of the most iconic and beautiful landscapes in the state.

Included in the bill are the iconic peaks of the Organ Mountains, which rise over 9,000 feet in elevation and whose outline ripples the horizon just east of the growing city of Las Cruces.  Dona Ana County has seen its population grow 160% over the past 40 years, one of the highest rates in the country, making it all the more urgent to protect the remaining wild lands close to urban areas.

The Organ Mountains are an area of incredible botanical diversity with 870 species of vascular plants, including 36 species of ferns and two threatened endemic flowering perennials, the Organ Mountain primrose and smooth figwort. The ecological zones change with the landscape from lower elevation mountain mahogany scrub to higher Ponderosa pine woodlands, topping the highest peak at 9,012 feet. The Organ Mountains are named for the needle-like extrusions of granite that resemble organ pipes. Many animals – such as the gray fox, pronghorn, mule deer, quail, jackrabbits, golden eagles, Swainson’s hawk, bats, migrating duck and threatened grassland songbirds – call this area their home, and attract visitors to view them in their natural habitat.

Also included in the legislation are other areas of unique geologic and cultural value, as well as providing healthy habitat for wildlife and protection for the seeps and springs of clean water feeding into the Rio Grande. From the gorgeous volcanic cliffs and buttes of Broad Canyon to the grasslands banking up against the cindercone and mantled basalt upthrust of the Potrillos Mountains, the protected areas are home to rich biological diversity. The pristine and rugged qualities of many of the areas provide opportunities for soul-filling solitude and outdoor recreation including hunting, horseback riding, hiking, birding and camping.

The re-introduction of this vital legislation gives me hope that I can continue to visit this awe-inspiring place whenever I go home to Las Cruces.

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