Their View: Senate bill, monument work together to protect public lands

Protection of public lands has been a topic of intense discussion in Doña Ana County since the 1980s.

Most recently this talk has focused on two measures: a wilderness bill sponsored by Senators Bingaman and Udall (S1024), and a citizens' proposal that would establish the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument by presidential proclamation.

In 2006 and 2009 the Board of Commissioners of Doña Ana County passed a resolution endorsing the senators' wilderness legislation. On May 22, 2012, the Board approved another resolution supporting the citizens' proposal for a national monument. All resolutions were passed by unanimous vote.

Although opponents continue to question these initiatives, I remain convinced that both the wilderness legislation and proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument are in the best interests of the county as a whole. These measures would guarantee much needed protection for natural and historic resources that are of vital interest to our residents, and provide a clear legal framework for management of activity within the protected areas.

The proposed monument covers about 587,000 acres. Wilderness designation would apply to roughly two-thirds of the monument. Eighty-three percent of the proposed monument is currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The remainder of public land is state owned. The monument would affect less than one-third of all federal lands in Doña Ana County, and leave 600,000 acres of BLM land open for other uses. Private lands would not be impacted by national monument or wilderness designation.

Although wilderness areas would overlap portions of the monument, one does not have to come before the other nor does one depend on the other. In fact, the two are on completely separate tracks. Wilderness is waiting for Congressional action while the monument proposal is working its way to the president's desk.

Regardless, the two approaches would be complementary, with wilderness protecting core natural areas and the monument offering a more flexible management framework around the perimeter.

Both the wilderness bill and citizens' proposal would address conditions in the Organ Mountains and other upland areas north and west of Las Cruces such as the boulder-lined canyons of the Sierra de las Uvas, volcanic features in and around the Potrillos, and rugged outcrops of the Doña Ana and Robledo Mountains.

These mountains and their surrounding grasslands are noteworthy for their ecological value, historic associations, and scientific interest. They also support ranching and are favored locations for hunting and outdoor recreation. And everyone loves this desert landscape for its spectacular beauty.

Most people seem to be satisfied with existing opportunities to use and enjoy these public lands. However, change is inevitable. Doña Ana County is the second-fastest growing county in New Mexico. More than 200,000 people live here and another 100,000 are expected within 25 years. No one knows the extent to which resources in upland areas are at risk or if existing uses will be allowed to continue in these locations. This uncertainty seems to be driving all sides of the conservation debate.

For many the greatest danger is that land development could cut into significant natural and historic areas. Any such activity would degrade their value. Native plants and animals do not do well in fragmented habitats. Development would also conflict with hunting, impinge on outdoor recreation, and complicate ranching. And development of this public land could pre-empt other opportunities and benefits for the public at large.

Permanent wilderness and monument designations will support economic activity. Immediate beneficiaries include businesses that cater to outdoor recreation, hunting and tourism. But the real economic boost will be felt in construction, real estate, and retail business activity due to overall regional growth. Existing residents are more likely to stay, businesses with good paying jobs to relocate, and retirees to settle here, if the area continues to offer a vibrant community life and outstanding recreational opportunities within our uniquely Southwestern setting.

Flood management, border security, and continuation of ranching operations have been raised as objections to conservation initiatives. These are valid and important concerns that have all been addressed in the senators' wilderness legislation. Similar accommodations can and should be made within the monument.

Development of management plans for both the wilderness and the monument will provide plenty of opportunities for these concerns to be taken care of in an open, transparent, and fair manner.

Some have said that all issues should be resolved up front. That is not the way the process works. Legislation and executive proclamations are policy statements that provide purpose and overall direction for designated areas. Management planning resolves the details. For example, no one disputes the importance of flood control, but there is more than one way to accomplish this objective. Planning provides a way to ground-truth options and to assess their potential affect on other concerns.

We live in one of the most historic, environmentally significant, and beautiful landscapes in the American Southwest. We can keep it that way by working with established processes, exchanging information, and backing conservation initiatives. It's time we moved forward with S.1024 and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Together they would safeguard existing opportunities for public use of public lands; together they offer a practical and constructive way to protect our heritage from the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Billy G. Garrett represents District 1 on the Doña Ana County Commission.