Can the Organ Mountains Survive the White House’s Monument Review?

Vets, local leaders fighting for Southern New Mexico reserve ahead of August 24 deadline.

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Garrett Reppenhagen had just two hours to help save Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

It was late July, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was visiting the site in New Mexico as part of his review of National Monuments, and Reppenhagen, Rocky Mountain director of the nonprofit Vet Voice Foundation, was in charge of showing him around the area’s petroglyphs and other ancient sites in the limited time he had. A dozen veterans walked with the secretary into a field where Native Americans gathered to make tools 1,800 years ago.

“If you look out over the ground in the right sunlight, it kind of glitters because of the pieces of rock they used,” says Reppenhagen. “These are areas like that that are precious for Native Americans. They’re of intense cultural importance.”

During Zinke’s tour, the secretary took a helicopter ride over the granite peaks of the Organ Mountains, which are visible on the horizon from a hundred miles away. He passed over creased igneous formations, limestone that includes a “megatracksite” of pre-dinosaur fossils 280 million years old, the traces of a historic stagecoach route, sites used by World War II pilots for bombing practice and by Apollo Mission astronauts for training ground, and a cave that Apache leader Geronimo allegedly used as a hideout.

Zinke’s visit was part of the Department of the Interior’s White-House-mandated 120-day review of 27 national monuments created during the last 20 years. With his tour over, the secretary’s recommendations on the future of these monuments are due August 24. He’s already announced plans to downsize one, the 1.35 million-acre southeastern Utah monument Bears Ears.

But some observers fear the lesser-known monuments still on the list may be low-hanging fruit, ripe for repeal or downsizing with little public outcry.

A voice for the public

While Zinke and the White House have cast the review process as an opportunity for the public to make its opinion heard in the face of government overreach, it remains to be seen if the current administration is ready to listen. Half of public comments submitted during the review process specifically mentioned Bears Ears, according to an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities, and nearly 90 percent of those expressed support for the monument. Yet Zinke has already recommended revising that monument’s boundaries.

“This seems to be driven by kind of ulterior motives and not directly engaged or not directly driven by the on-the-ground concerns,” says Ben Gabriel, executive director of Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.

In a statement released in April, Zinke called the current review process the “first ever formal public comment period” on national monuments.

“The Department of the Interior is the steward of America’s greatest treasures and the manager of one-fifth of our land,” said Zinke. “Part of being a good steward is being a good neighbor and listening to the American people. … Initiating a formal public comment process finally gives a voice to local communities and states when it comes to Antiquities Act monument designations.”

But following a review of 654,197 of the 2.7 million comments submitted during the public comment period, the Center for Western Priorities said it found that 98 percent supported keeping monuments as they are.

“America has spoken loud and clear: protect and enhance national monuments, don’t eliminate them,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director at the Center for Western Priorities, said in a press statement announcing the results of the center’s review. “Unfortunately, this administration, under Secretary Zinke’s leadership, has demonstrated its priority is carrying water for special interests and not working on behalf of all Americans.”

Zinke has announced some monuments will remain as they are: Craters of the Moon, Hanford Reach, Canyon of the Ancients, Upper Missouri River Breaks, and Grand Canyon-Parashant. Each of those monuments had vocal advocates among local elected officials from both parties. In that regard, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks’ support is mixed.

The only consistency is the arbitrariness with which the secretary has handed down his pardons, reads an analysis from the Center for American Progress.

“From the beginning, the review has been a guessing game as to which monuments are actually being targeted, how the review is being conducted, whose voices will be heard, and what is driving Zinke’s decisions,” wrote Jenny Rowland, research and advocacy manager for the Public Lands Project at the center. “The country’s national monuments should not be treated like contestants on a reality show, to be voted off one at time.”

Congressman Steve Pearce (R-NM), who represents the area, has been calling on the secretary to shrink the monument, and New Mexico’s Republican governor, Susana Martinez, has also said she supports the review to ensure the state’s monuments uphold the spirit of the Antiquities Act.

Pearce agrees that Organ Peaks should be protected—about 54,000 acres of it. The monument, established by former President Barack Obama in 2014, covers 496,000 acres. Were the monument resized to the area Pearce has proposed for protection, it would be reduced by 88 percent, and would likely leave out the Desert Peaks altogether.

“A reduction of 88 percent of our national monument would be devastating to our community,” says Gabriel. Lost in the shift would be both Native American and Hispanic cultural sites, such as the historic Camino Real trade route.

Pearce has charged that businesses, ranchers, border security personnel, and outdoorsmen have been “negatively impacted by the current size and complexity of the monument.” Gabriel, however, points to the tourism blossoming around the monument, which helped secure southern New Mexico a spot on a Lonely Planet top 10 list, and fueled a month-long “Monuments to Main Street” event series.

Just a small portion of the monument has been surveyed for artifacts and other historical evidence, such as petroglyphs, pictographs, pottery sherds, projectile points, and prehistoric trails. Increased tourism has led to the recognition of 10 new archeological sites in the last three years, Gabriel adds—precisely the kind of history the Antiquities Act was crafted to protect.

Some local leaders feel ignored

Zinke’s meetings during his trip to New Mexico prioritized some leaders over others. The Secretary skipped a town meeting organized by local mayors and county commissioners with nearly 700 attendees. He did, however, meet with academics, ranchers, veterans, representatives from Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, and border security personnel. He also rode horseback through northern New Mexico with Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats and supporters of protecting the area.

Part of the problem, says Gabriel, is the speed with which the review has occurred.

“We find that a 60-day comment period and a 120-day review to offset 20 years of community support is really tough to swallow,” he says.

Among Zinke’s concerns, Gabriel says, was an absence of infrastructure at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks—few bathrooms or signs that point out archaeological sites.

“That’s part of what we love,” Gabriel says. “We want to have some places where we can still have self-discovery, where we can still explore, where we hunt, and places we can embrace that are still wild.”

There’s a national scenic trail, the Sierra Vista Trail, through a 30-mile stretch of the monument, but much of the mountains require off-trail exploration. It’s a quiet, undeveloped place, and Reppenhagen says that many veterans working with his organization head there to reconnect with their families and heal.

“I think in some sense he thought this was a low-hanging fruit to attack and reduce,” Reppenhagen says. The goal of the veterans in his group was to prove otherwise.

“There were times I was in Iraq in a sniper position, dreaming I was somewhere else in a world, and almost every time, I was dreaming I was outdoors, in public lands,” he says. “It’s tragic to come home and still see all these lands under attack.”