The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument created by President Barack Obama on May 21 has angered some New Mexico residents, particularly ranchers who fear the designation will make it easier for dangerous cartels from Mexico to move people and drugs through the region.
The monument is spread over about 500,000 acres near Las Cruces in Dona Ana County.
"We do not see that there is anything that is better about having a monument designation, and what it does is cause more possibilities for abuse," says Carol Cooper, whose family has owned a cattle ranch on acreage that encompasses about one-eighth of the newly designated monument lands.
Cooper told Newsmax that she fears the federal government will use its power to take away her livelihood and investment, closing roads and making it nearly impossible for her family to take care of its livestock.
"The president acted unilaterally in this, without the input of Congress," said Cooper, who belongs to a group of about 30 people who regularly gather, seeking to thwart the government from taking over their land and industry.
"As ranchers, we don't need more restrictions," she said. "We don't need our hands tied when we are trying to take care of our business. We have always worked with the Bureau of Land Management, but it is very obvious they don't want us here. We are nervous about regulations in the future that are even more restrictive."
The president, in announcing that he had signed the proclamation under the Antiquities Act, touted its benefits for economic tourism for the region, promoting the beauty of the Organ Mountains as "a spectacular sight."
"You got massive rocks that jut up 9,000 feet in the air and stretch for 20 miles, like the organ pipes of a giant," Obama noted of the area.
While Obama said local leaders and residents supported the monument's creation, members of the state's congressional delegation say they are outraged by the way it was handled.
Republican Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico had proposed a bill for the monument area that would have taken a legislative path to approval, taking into account the concerns of ranchers who sought protection for livestock, water rights, hunting access, and grazing permits, as well as access for motorized vehicles on roads within the acreage.
Pearce called the president's action a "land grab."
"The president's decision to section off one-fifth of Dona Ana County is misguided and shows his contempt for the legislative branch," Pearce said in a statement.
"For years, I have worked to find a collaborative solution to permanently protect the Organ Mountains and promote true economic opportunity for my constituents," Pearce said. "With this land grab, the president is once again going out of his way to derail any attempt to form a consensus, and do what local people want. Residents of Dona Ana County deserve the assurance that first responders and Border Patrol can protect the public, flood control structures will be maintained, ranchers will have their grazing rights, and hunters can have the access they've always enjoyed."
Other lawmakers in the region were upset, as well, saying they fear the Border Patrol could face difficulties under the new monument land designation.
"National Parks, monuments, and wilderness areas along our southern border have become prime drug-trafficking corridors for violent criminals and drug cartels. Restrictive environmental laws within these federal corridors limit Border Patrol access, and as a result, make it easier for drug smugglers and human traffickers to move their drugs and people in and out of the United States unnoticed," Rep. Bob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee's Public Lands and Environmental Regulation subcommittee, said in a statement.
Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison has also voiced objections, noting in news accounts that he had not been consulted about the government's decision.
Garrison raised concerns that roads within the monument area could be closed to local officers because it is federal land, and he fears greater access by drug cartels across the border in Mexico.
Cooper shares that concern, noting the ongoing crossing of illegal immigrants across her own land.
"I'm on the north part of this monument, and yet we have a Border Patrol station a few hundred yards from the entrance to our ranch. The south part of this monument is right on the border, and we have always had illegals come through our ranch from Mexico," she said.
"Before, these were people who wanted to get away from Mexico and find a place to work, a better life, but when the drug cartels came in, it was for drug-running," Cooper said. "It's very open space here, and they enter from the south area of the monument, walk north, and then cross I-10, heading further north. The Border Patrol drives through our ranch looking for illegals. We've have not had any murders on our ranch, but there have been serious things that have happened and lots of them."
Cooper said that federal officials "have said Border Patrol can have a certain amount of access. But we fear the environmentalists will sue the Bureau of Land Management or the Border Patrol so they would have to pay if they go off-road in pursuit of an illegal."
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said concerns over Border Patrol restrictions there are valid.
"When land is designated as wilderness or a national park on the border, it makes it harder for the Border Patrol to patrol those areas. The existing land, if it is already in the hands of the Park Service or Fish and Wildlife Service, there are all kinds of restrictions on Border Patrol use."
Krikorian said legislation has been previously introduced that would give Border Patrol a free hand on such land.
"If the Border Patrol isn't impeded in its work by these designations, they don't bother me, but if this becomes a wilderness designation that does draw some concern for the Border Patrol's freedom of movement," he told Newsmax.
"Can they access these areas without the agency having to pay the other federal agency for remediation of the roads and things like that? Does this limit the Border Patrol's freedom of action in these border areas?" Krikorian said. "The answer usually is yes. And that is why I think the Border Patrol needs to be given explicit authority that overrides any environmental or other laws to patrol the border."
The Border Patrol has assured that the monument designation will not get in the way of its work in protecting the region.
"This designation will in no way limit our ability to perform our important border security mission, and in fact provides important flexibility as we work to meet this ongoing priority," Border Patrol spokeswoman Jenny Burke said in a statement.
Opponents of the monument say the justification of federal intervention for tourism is off-base.
Jerry G. Schickedanz, a former agriculture dean at New Mexico State University who serves as chairman of the Western Heritage Alliance, calls the federal designation an "end run" that leaves ranchers and farmers with no protection from government ruining their livelihoods.
"I'm not opposed to national monuments if they are protecting something," Schickedanz told Newsmax.
"This one is scattered over 500,000 acres on three or four difference parcels. For many of the prehistoric or archaeological sites, there is no road out there. I don't know what people [who visit] are going to do. They are going to be very disappointed if they come here, get a rental car and drive all the way from the El Paso [Texas] airport. It's a big scam as far as I see as increasing tourism. It's not a destination."
Ranchers, he said, fear they will lose all the money and work they have put into maintaining their parcels.
"If the government imposes tougher regulations — at the behest of environmentalists who supported the monument — their small pieces of private land are not going to be enough to make a living on," he said.
Schickedanz decried the increasing impact of the government in the Western states where the Bureau of Land Management oversees 19 monument areas in nine states.
As for the president, "he doesn't care one whip about a national monument there. This is all politics," said Schickedanz, who questioned the timing of the action.
"The Antiquities Act has been around since Teddy Roosevelt for presidents to use if they want to create a monument," he said. "Most do it in the last month or two of their terms so there is not any political fallout from it. President Obama needed something positive in the paper, some help on placating some of the environmentalists.
"To the uninitiated, making a national monument is a good thing. They point to all these places that are destinations — Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon — and it's warm and fuzzy.
"The proponents only talk about pretty pictures, flowers and tourism, but they have nothing to back them up."
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