SANTA FE, N.M. – Desert ranchers in New Mexico are hoping the new GOP administration in Washington will dramatically shrink a recently designated national monument in the south of the state where outlaw Billy the Kid and Apache leader Geronimo once sought refuge.
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The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is among 27 monuments where a review ordered by President Donald Trump might remove protections previously considered irreversible.
The review is rekindling a fierce debate about oversight of lands marked by ancient petroglyphs and towering mountain spires. President Barack Obama designated the monument in 2014, emphasizing the need to preserve the area's unique past and ensure opportunities for outdoor recreation and hunting.
Cattle-grazing has continued undiminished within the monument boundaries, but many ranchers fear that gradual limitations might eventually drive them out, said Tom Mobley, who operates a ranch with about 150 cattle under a federal grazing permit within the monument.
A leading voice in a coalition that resisted the monument designation, Mobley believes Obama failed to comply with the federal Antiquities Act by focusing on an overarching area rather than specific objects of historical and scientific interest.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce has called the monument on the outskirts of Las Cruces just one example of federal interference with a struggling rural economy.
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While mulling a possible run for governor in 2018, Pearce has jumped back into a yearslong effort to limit any new wilderness or monument designation at the jagged Organ Mountains and nearby lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
"The local population said protect, but also don't overreach," said Pearce, the lone Republican lawmaker among New Mexico's five-member delegation to Washington. "The economy in our rural western states is just choked down by the federal government."
Pearce last week urged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reduce the outline of the monument from 775 square miles (2010 square kilometers) to about 95 square miles (240 square kilometers), and hopes to accompany Zinke on a promised visit to New Mexico in coming weeks.
Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance that advocates for federal protection of public lands, said Pearce's stance is out of touch with public opinion but could still carry political weight in Washington.
"We're taking it very seriously," he said. "I'm very skeptical of the (review) process and that it is going to be run with integrity."
Defenders of the new monument said it has been proven to be widely popular and attracts tourists and professionals who value outdoor recreation.
Luxury home builder Wayne Suggs, a 56-year-old Las Cruces native, said he routinely touts recreational opportunities in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks to sell homes to lawyers, physicians and other professionals. He cites the monument designation as a guarantee against encroachment by private development.
"They want the open space to go out and just relax and get that stress relief," he said. "It's not just us that it helps. There are literally hundreds of people who work on the homes" in construction.
New Mexico's four Democratic U.S. lawmakers have urged Zinke to leave intact both the Organ monument and the Rio Grande del Norte monument near Taos.
Zinke's stance was unclear, with a final report due out in August. He has recommended a downsizing of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
Adding to pressure to shrink the monuments in New Mexico, State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn announced Tuesday that he supports reducing the size if it will allow the state to generate income from trust lands isolated within the monuments.
Dunn, a Republican, has pushed without success to transfer 65 square miles (165 square kilometers) of state land holdings into the monuments in exchange for Bureau of Land Management property elsewhere that can generate lease revenue for the state.