Administration eyes Antiquities Act in NM; Bishop calls for caution

Dec 21, 2012

Their hopes fading that the current lame duck session of Congress will approve protective designations on hundreds of thousands of acres in New Mexico, Democrat lawmakers from the Land of Enchantment are urging President Obama to use the Antiquities Act to create two national monuments, bypassing congressional approval.

The areas under consideration are the Rio Grande del Norte, a deep river gorge and tableland along New Mexico’s northern border with Colorado, and the Organ Mountains in southern New Mexico’s Doña Ana County. Both areas are prized by outdoor recreationists, as well as an important resource for public lands ranchers.

Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D- NM, and Tom Udall, D-NM, introduced legislation in 2011 to create landscape-scale National Conservation Areas and wilderness in the Rio Grande Del Norte gorge (S. 667) and in the Organ Mountains (S. 1024). But with the 112th Congress drawing to a close, the two senators in October asked Obama in a letter to “use your authority under the Antiquities Act to designate these areas as National Monuments.”

In a strong indication that the administration is testing the waters for carrying out Bingaman and Udall’s request, Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar held a “public listening session” in Taos last week to float the idea of a monument in the Rio Grande del Norte region before the public.

According to those present, over 150 people turned out at the Kachina Lodge on Dec. 15 in Taos to hear Salazar’s monument proposal and to comment on it. The turnout is noteworthy, given that DOI gave less than 30 hours’ notice before the meeting was to occur.

One attendee, Eliza Kretzmann, associate organizing representative for the Sierra Club’s resilient habitats campaign, said that Salazar polled the audience to find out how many people present favored a monument in the Rio Grande del Norte.

“It has great local support,” said Kretzmann. “There was not a single voice of opposition that was heard in the room.”

One rancher present, Erminio Martinez of Taos, said that the monument designation would help protect grazing permits.

“It’s a good thing because you simply don’t know what the government could do down the road,” said Martinez, who added that Salazar had personally guaranteed that “traditional uses” like grazing on the monument would be safeguarded.

However, Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA), pointed out that the organization remained strongly opposed to the creation of a monument. Although notice of the meeting was released to local media, NMCGA did not learn of the event until later.

“There may have been individual ranchers at that meeting, but there was no communication with trade organizations that represent the industry as a whole,” said Cowan, who added that the New Mexico Farm Bureau was not notified either.

Cowan indicated that NMCGA is concerned that a monument, either in the Rio Grande del Norte or the Organ Mountains, could subordinate grazing to other uses.

Additionally, protective designations can prevent sensible management of natural resources because agencies must face a threat of increased lawsuits due to the protected status of the land, Cowan said.

“The larger issue comes back to that we just keep putting layer after layer of designations on land. That doesn’t even allow prudent management,” said Cowan, adding that “forest management is done via lawsuits, which means no management whatsoever.”

“As we put more and more layers of designations on, we provide more and more opportunity for litigation, which provides less and less opportunity for commonsense management of the land.”

Although environmental organizations and some citizen and government groups in New Mexico have enthusiastically supported the two monument proposals, some Republican lawmakers are urging that the president exercise restraint.

In a press release issued Dec. 17, Congressman Rob Bishop, R-UT, cautioned the administration against using the Antiquities Act to designate landscape-size pieces of public land when congressional support, and potentially the support of important local stakeholders, is in question.

“I remained concerned that the administration is using the Antiquities Act to not only circumvent Congress, but also forgo addressing the concerns of those who stand to be affected by this the most,” said Bishop. “Chairman Bingaman’s bill to designate this area failed to advance in his own Democrat-controlled Senate the past two sessions of Congress. This lack of action and urgency raises the question that the area is not immediately threatened or endangered,” Bishop continued.

Bishop, who is chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, has been a consistent critic of large-scale conservation designations, which he has said can foreclose on natural resource use and economically choke rural communities.

Rep. Stevan Pearce, R- NM, whose congressional district in part falls within the monument being proposed in the Organ Mountains, sent Obama a letter asking that no monument designation be made because it would “negatively impact border security and quality of life” within the area. His request was accompanied by a slew of resolutions passed by local towns, soil and water conservation districts, and irrigation districts opposing the creation of a monument.

The competing positions raise questions regarding how broadly New Mexicans support one or more new monuments in their state. While county commissioners in Taos and Doña Ana counties have been supportive of the proposals, along with local chambers of commerce, this is largely seen as being representative of the urban and largely liberal populations of the cities of Taos and Las Cruces, which is the Doña Ana county seat. Outside of urban centers, support for the proposals is significantly weaker.

Katherine Kelly, director of communications at DOI, dismissed the idea that the rural public had been excluded from the discussion, saying that from the start, Bingaman and Udall’s legislative effort held town hall meetings and worked with local land owners and permittees to address concerns.

But the recent meeting in Taos, with attendees’ unanimous approval of what is clearly a controversial topic, has left some stakeholders feeling like they simply weren’t invited to the party.

“It’s disappointing that we weren’t even notified, and that we read these things after the fact, said Cowan. “It causes us grave concern as we move forward.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent,