Commentary: This week, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) reintroduced a public lands package that includes the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act, the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act, reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and dozens of other bipartisan public lands bills. The package was thwarted by a single U.S. Senator from Utah last Congress, despite strong support from Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and the majority of their colleagues.
Thankfully, it was reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer pledged to bring the lands package up for a vote “shortly after the upper chamber returns in January,” and given that it was just reintroduced, a broad coalition is asking that Congress pass the bipartisan public lands package now.
“I served my country for many reasons, and among them is the foresight we’ve had in this country to protect places right in our backyards like our national monument,” said Jeff Dray, an Army Veteran from Las Cruces. “I urge Congress to stand with all veterans and pass this important bipartisan public lands package. Protecting critical areas of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument as wilderness is the gold standard of land protection and a representation of the conservation ethic that exemplifies the United States.”
Legislation to safeguard the wilderness in these two areas was first introduced by former Senator Jeff Bingaman in 2009 in the 111th Congress, and then again by Senators Udall and Heinrich in the 112th and 113th Congresses. In 2013 and 2014, President Obama established the Río Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments, after years of inaction from Congress. Many of the proposed wilderness areas enjoy temporary wilderness status as Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), but only Congress can designate an official wilderness area through legislation.
“Providing permanent protection for many of the places that I hike and hunt within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument will ensure my family and future generations have an opportunity to continue our outdoor heritage for generations to come. Permanent protection will also mean that wildlife populations will have the connectivity and habitat they need to thrive. I ask that our leaders in Congress uphold their promise and bring this legislation to a vote now,” added Ashley Beyer, a sportswoman from Las Cruces.
Both wilderness bills are decades in the making and are supported by New Mexicans across the state, including hunters and anglers, small business owners, veterans, elected officials and community leaders, clergy, ranchers, and conservationists. The bills will designate roughly261,500 acres of wilderness within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Río Grande del Norte national monuments. The bills were championed by Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, Governor Michele Lujan Grisham, and Congressman Ben Ray Luján.
Stuart Wilde, Local Outfitter and owner of Wild Earth Llama Adventures said, “Conservation of our public lands not only ensures that our most special places are protected for future generations, but also benefits the local economy by attracting visitors, who come to marvel at our unspoiled wilderness landscapes. I sincerely hope that Congress passes this important public lands package, because it will be a benefit to all Americans.”
Both wilderness bills will further boost the local economies. People come to the wildest places within the national monuments to hike, hunt, fish, ride horseback, bird, camp, and more. These visits translate into real economic growth for the area. An EcoNorthwest study found that quiet recreation on BLM lands in New Mexico generated $173 million in 2014 and supported 1,712 jobs across the state.
“The protection for the National Monument is vital to keep the lands the way they were hundreds of years ago, and for our future generations to enjoy without it being misused,” Taos Pueblo Warchief Bernard Lujan added.
Background on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act
The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act was introduced by Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and would designate eight wilderness areas totaling roughly 240,000 acres within the 496,330-acre national monument. The proposed wilderness would give a higher level of protection to special lands within the monument.
Hunting, livestock grazing, hiking, camping, horseback riding, firefighting, and law enforcement and border security activities would continue in the wilderness areas. The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument contains approximately 306 bird species and 78 mammal species, including golden eagles, mule deer, javelina, cougar, ring-tail cat, and quail. The proposed wilderness will strengthen the wildlife habitat for these species as well as protect the watersheds that they depend on.
Background on the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act
The Cerros del Norte Conservation Act would designate two new wilderness areas – Ute Mountain (Cerro del Yuta) and Rio San Antonio – within the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, totaling 21,500 acres within the 242,500-acre national monument. It was introduced by Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, and Congressman Ben Ray Luján. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham was a co-sponsor when she was in the U.S. House of Representatives. People have been working to preserve these special areas for more than 25 years.
Grazing would continue in already-permitted areas, and water rights would not be impacted under the proposed legislation. Additionally, traditional activities like wood and piñon gathering would continue.
The proposed wilderness areas within the national monument serve as one of the world’s great avian migratory routes. These areas are also home to important game species like pronghorn and elk. Additionally, the legislation would safeguard world-class recreation opportunities already enjoyed within the national monument, including hiking, hunting, and fishing.