Not so fast on the Organ Mountains national monument.
Like all certified desert rats, I have my dermatologist on speed dial. Every solar-powered nodule he has dug out of my sun-weathered skin has come with an admonition to stay out of the sun. I think I'd rather stay out of doctors' offices. I have earned my squinty eyes, my cracked skin and melanomas by virtue of my communion with the creosote and rocks, and any sand in my craw is courtesy of a backcountry arroyo. I won't be separated from my desert, even though some well-intentioned urbanites have decided to make that a priority. I am all for protecting our wide-open spaces, but the so-called Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument is like removing a melanoma with a chainsaw.
Even if you don't live in the Mesilla Valley, you'd have to be a total Magoo not to have seen the beauty of the Organ Mountains. I have hiked, crawled, camped and four-wheeled in the Organ Mountains, and their beauty is unparalleled. Frankly, I am surprised that the mountains haven't been declared a national monument already. I don't think anybody opposes protecting these iconic mountains, from proponents of the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument proposal to the supporters of alternate, less-draconian wilderness legislation.
But no subject is so simple that it can't have a thick layer of crazy smeared all over it. With the support of New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, a flotilla of well-intentioned nature-lovers unencumbered by any distrust of government can't get enough of a good thing. Senate Bill S.1805 would create the Organ Mountains–Desert Peak National Monument, putting over 500,000 acres of Doña Ana County under permanent protection. The only drawback? The Organ Mountains comprise only about 50,000 acres of that total.
"Big deal, Lightcap," you scoff. "Why not protect more? Let's protect all the natures." A noble idea, and one I tend to support, but not when it restricts my access to the other 450,000 acres of land that would fall under monument protection. Along with protecting the Organ Mountains, which most people seem to agree is a good thing, it'll lock up way more than that — over 21% of the total land area in the county.
I have been told by wild-eyed mesquite-huggers that nothing will change; I will still enjoy relatively unfettered access to these lands, and that the government is our friend. I'm far too cynical to subscribe to such naïve optimism, and can't believe that once all this land is declared a monument, some pin-headed bureaucrat won't start making decisions that are contrary to the promises I am hearing now.
Placing all this wonderful dirt under the control of a faceless government agency removes the voices of the local people from the equation entirely. As it exists now, most of the land in question is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is supposed to adopt a "multiple-use" philosophy of land management. This has worked pretty well for decades, and it's a process that takes into account the wishes of many local groups: horsemen, mining operations, cattle growers, recreationalists, wilderness advocates, archeologists and many other factions. The BLM listens to local citizens to make informed decisions. Not always perfect, but at least we the people have some representation in the process.
Once the land is designated a national monument, however, the voice of the public is no longer a concern for the federal government. Administrators in Washington, DC, get to decide what to do within the boundaries of the monument. They can close roads, put up gates, restrict access, require permits — even arrest trespassers — at will. If President Obama signs the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument bill into law, we local desert rats won't gain much, but we will lose any future say in how these lands are used. Sounds like a raw deal to me. I don't expect a bureaucrat to appreciate my communion with the rocks and snakes when they decide to "protect everything for the future-people" by administrative fiat.
We won't be able to voice our opinions on decisions that impact our local economy. We won't be able to develop solar power arrays, or tap into any sources of new energy or natural resources. No roads or highways can be planned within the monument to relieve any future traffic problems. Law-enforcement access will be hindered, and effective flood-control projects will be compromised. Promises of increased economic activity from a monument seem hard to pin down, but I can't envision throngs of snazzy eco-tourists in their Eddie Bauer-approved hiking togs clogging up the trails, dropping trails of money behind them to find their way back.
A few weeks ago, when I was traversing Upper Broad Canyon, a wondrous place that would fall under the monument's jurisdiction, I stopped the Jeep and walked around a bit. My son and his friend were with me, and we popped a squat on a boulder in a convenient shady alcove. I couldn't help but wonder how many of the people who are blindly supporting this monument as their feel-good, I-love-nature homage to slacktivism have even experienced the lands that they yearn to protect "for future generations." What about the present generation?
I am concerned that the well-intentioned and self-appointed preservationists are happily handing over the keys to the kingdom without thinking about all that could be lost. If it happens, I will reluctantly become a desperado, and I will carry my own key to the desert in the back of the Jeep. Wire cutters and bolt cutters can give you access that the government won't, and a few spare padlocks and baling wire can patch things up after I've passed. Land snatching has long been held in low regard in the wide-open West, and I can't in good conscience be a party to such despicable behavior.
There are alternatives. Congressional H.B. 995, sponsored by Rep. Steve Pearce, provides much-needed monument status for the Organ Mountains, and leaves intact most of the current Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). Sure, it's not perfect, either — why give up ANY of the WSAs? — but it gives local desert rats, ranchers, greenies, law enforcement and everybody else the opportunity to have a say in how this incredible land is used and enjoyed. More people enjoying the land is a good thing, and it keeps my dermatologist in champagne and caviar.
Henry Lightcap sharpens his bolt-cutters in Las Cruces.