U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall today asked President Obama to consider designating two special areas in New Mexico - already managed by the Bureau of Land Management - for National Monument status.
The senators are the sponsors of legislation that would elevate these two places - the Rio Grande Gorge and adjacent Taos Plateau, and the Organ Mountains and other important public lands in Doña Ana County - to National Conservation Areas/Wilderness Areas. In a letter to the president, the senators acknowledged that it has been difficult to pass legislation in this Congress and it is unclear whether the logjam will be broken in the lame-duck session. Given this uncertainty, they asked the president to consider exercising his authority to establish National Monuments -- authority granted to presidents by Congress in the Antiquities Act.
"We will continue to work to advance legislation in the Senate to conserve these important areas in New Mexico, but in the absence of any certainty about the passage of legislation, we believe you should work with local communities to explore how a National Monument designation would protect the archeological and cultural resources in these two regions. Since the legislation has been carefully crafted to secure broad support, we request that you carefully consider these proposals," the senators wrote.
National Monument status, similar to a National Conservation Area designation, would allow these lands and their important wildlife habitat to be protected for the future, while preserving existing uses such as hunting, fishing, and grazing. Other National Monuments in the State designated by past presidents include Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, Bandelier, Chaco Canyon, Gila Cliff Dwellings, and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks - all of which have provided significant economic and educational contributions to New Mexico.
Last year, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed legislation called the Río Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act. That bill protects approximately 236,000 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Taos and Río Arriba counties by designating a combination of "conservation" and "wilderness" areas. The vast majority of the land - 214,600 acres - would be managed as a National Conservation area. Two other areas - the 13,400-acre Cerro del Yuta on the east-side and the 8,000-acre Río San Antonio in the west - will be managed as wilderness.
The senators are also the sponsors of legislation -- called the Organ Mountains - Doña Ana County Conservation and Protection Act -- which seeks to create wilderness and conservation areas in Doña Ana County that provide for continued public use while protecting the granite peaks of the Organ Mountains and the volcanic cinder cones of the Potrillo Mountains, among other public lands in the county. The legislation would bring to fruition President George H.W. Bush's recommendation to protect sensitive landscapes in the county by creating 241,000 acres of wilderness and 100,000 acres of National Conservation Area (NCA). Under the legislation, these areas would be managed in ways that protect the landscape from development while preserving current uses - such as hunting and grazing.
Much of the area has been managed as a "Wilderness Study Area" since the 1980s when the Reagan administration first set it aside for protected status. It was later recommended by the George H.W. Bush administration and then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan to be elevated to full wilderness status. A National Monument designation would still allow Congress to designate lands with the Monument as wilderness in the future.
Other National Monuments in the State designated by past presidents include Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, Bandelier, Chaco Canyon, El Morro, Gila Cliff Dwellings, Gran Quivira, Capulin Volcano, Aztec Ruins, and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks.
In their letter to the president, the senators point to the strong support behind both of the bills.
"New Mexicans on every level, from grassroots campaigns to Mayors and County Commissioners, have expressed their support for the protection of these special places," they wrote.