ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The boundaries of two national monuments in New Mexico that were part of an expansive federal review would remain unchanged under recommendations made by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, providing some relief to the groups that had come out in support of the designations.
The recommendations for the Rio Grande del Norte monument near the New Mexico-Colorado state line and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument along the southern border do call for making public access a priority as well as the pursuit of congressional authority to enable Native American tribes to help manage cultural areas within the boundaries.
Zinke’s recommendations were revealed in a leaked memo submitted to the White House.
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks was established in 2014. It’s home to desert grasslands, rugged mountain peaks and historic sites, including a volcanic crater used by Apollo astronauts for lunar training and the tracks of the Butterfield Overland stagecoach route. It also features petroglyphs, areas visited by outlaw Billy the Kid and the ruins of the Dripping Springs mountain resort founded in the late 1800s.
Rio Grande del Norte encompasses rugged terrain in far northern New Mexico, with the river cutting a deep gorge through the plains and volcanic cones such as Ute Mountain providing markers along the horizon
While some environmental groups promised legal action over the recommended downsizing of monuments elsewhere, the response in New Mexico was more reserved as both sides acknowledged the final decision would be up to President Donald Trump and that it was still unclear what management changes could be made for Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.
“It’s not a done deal,” said Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “I still think there’s a chance for President Trump to do the right thing and side with the public.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, said Monday he was concerned about the lack of specifics in the memo, saying “New Mexicans are still in the dark about the future of our treasured monuments.”
Conservationists, tribal leaders and some elected leaders rallied in August to keep pressure on the White House to ensure the monuments remained intact. From Mesilla’s historic plaza in southern New Mexico to a packed REI outdoor recreation gear store in Albuquerque, they extolled the cultural and economic virtues of protecting the sites.
Others welcomed the review by the Interior Department, saying the Obama administration’s move to set aside large swaths of land was part of a massive federal land grab. Hispanic ranchers in northern New Mexico argued that the designations were an attack on grazing rights and water access and discounted historical connections that date back centuries to Spanish colonial land grants.
Dave Sanchez of the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association said not reducing the size of the monuments amount to an endorsement of the actions taken by the Obama administration.
“Our concern is that any time these areas are established, they have prevented access for us,” Sanchez said Monday. “And any time you terminate access for people who have had access to these areas for hundreds of years, it does have negative and cumulative impacts.”
Zinke met with the ranchers and conservationists during a trip to New Mexico.
The memo does raise concerns about restrictions that have limited historic uses such as grazing and urges federal agencies to work together to assess safety risks in protected areas along the U.S.-Mexico border.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, said the recommendations fall short and that economic, security and access issues remain without the resizing of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. He also raised concerns about private property rights, noting that the monument surrounds large areas of state and private lands.
Udall said he will continue to promote legislation in the Senate to provide more certainty about land use in the area and urged the White House to work with Congress rather than taking action that could ultimately weaken protections and cause confusion among visitors, ranchers and sportsmen.