Monday, November 26, 2012

The Battle of Dona Ana County

The Battle of Dona Ana County
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            There is a broken record being played from Dona Ana County, NM. The tune is not catchy. It is monotonous and it lacks any harmony.
Round six of the Organ Mountain Wilderness campaign is being played out, and the goal is designated wilderness in any shape or form. This is the most dangerous of all proposals and it is going to the President. The Antiquities Act is the angle and New Mexico’s Centennial Celebration is the excuse.
            The Acts
            The first hint the Organ Mountains (the familiar backdrop of Las Cruces, NM) was slated for wilderness was the assessment required by the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act. In 1991, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan signed the Decision of Record and sent the matter to the president. Some 30,000 acres of the Organs was deemed to have wilderness characteristics by the BLM. Neither President George H.W. Bush nor any of his successors acted on the report.
            Before the turn of the century, New Mexico Congressman Joe Skeen, suggested a National Conservation Area (NCA) for the Organs. His 58,000 acre idea went nowhere.
            Round two began when the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance (NMWA) inventoried lands in 2003 for its own version of wilderness. Notwithstanding the BLM’s analysis, NMWA found 393,362 acres that met its standards.
            An effort was then made to get New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici to carry a bill to protect 217,500 acres. The proposal failed when he realized there wasn’t adequate local support. Domenici backed away and left a lingering void.
            In 2006, NMWA started round three with a suggestion for 325,407 acres of wilderness. That idea went nowhere until Senator Domenici retired in 2008 and the torch was passed to Senator Jeff Bingaman.  In 2009, Bingaman along with the NM’s new junior senator, Tom Udall, introduced S.1689 with 259,050 acres of wilderness and NCA buffers. The expectation was high. The Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate, the House, every natural resource committee, the governorship of New Mexico, and every governing body in Dona Ana County. The bill failed to get traction and died at the end of the 2010 session.
            In 2011, the NM senators were back. They started round five of the process with their S.1024 that now encompassed nearly 400,000 acres. The Organ Mountains-Dona Ana County Conservation and Protection Act had more than 241,000 acres of designated wilderness without a hint of that designation in its title.
By the end of that year, there was indication that bill was also going nowhere. Following the anti-Democratic backlash of the midterms of 2010, the House was no longer a favorable path to wilderness. New Mexico Republican Representative Steve Pearce was back in office and sought to blaze his own path for protective measures in the Organs. He introduced HM.4334, the Organ Mountain National Monument Establishment Act. It followed Skeen’s idea calling for 58,012 acres with protection for local customs and culture. The greens hated it.
            Round six was revealed in March, 2012 when the Las Cruces Sun-News announced the county was going to be home of America’s next major national monument. The Organ Mountains was the story line until a bit of simple math indicated they would only be 10 percent of the proposal. The new national monument was going to be 600,000 acres!
            The plan is a Bingaman-Udall bill on steroids. It took the boundaries of all plans and expanded them. What became most explosive, though, was that the plan was not going through congressional channels. The plan was going directly to President Obama under his authority of Executive Order.
            The Front Story
            The Dona Ana saga has become another federal lands debate with the proponents shaping the battlefield to focus on the ranching community. Their tactic has been one of patronizing support, but as soon as the debate becomes negative, the tune of ‘Cattle Free’ by ‘93 or ‘03 eerily reemerges. The green bias in the local papers has continued to explore that tired approach, but the community isn’t buying it.
            The issue of watershed management advanced by the local soil and water conservation districts and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District is an example. The county population is concentrated along the narrow Rio Grande Valley. Because residential growth has been forced into that narrow corridor, the losses of farmland and flood control are huge issues. Reclamation dams built more than 50 years ago now provide the primary protection for housing developments because growth has been disallowed onto less productive federal land not impacted by the flood plain. That problem is made infinitely worse when the Bingaman-Udall bill allows only 300 to 1000 feet buffers into those surrounding federal lands. Flood control management will be worst case because options will be limited to large scale projects within the buffer zones rather than lesser cost, upslope alternatives.
            Public scoping was nonexistent. A short list of scoping oversight impacted by the national monument footprint would include the domestic water supply to the village of Hatch, a major FAA radar site, a major microwave sight, more than 60 parcels of private land, nearly 70 percent of the cattle in the county, more than 80 sections of state trust land, and the headquarters of the largest ranch in the county, the Corralitos. It is a property rights debacle.
            What is more frightening comes from proponents’ publicized management plan recommendations.  Among the most offensive is the intent to acquire all private and state lands, the intent to disallow any new leases, and the ordering of the BLM to conduct yet another inventory to identify lands with wilderness characteristics. Their recommendation then demands to “manage those lands to protect those values”. That is an overt end run to de facto wilderness without Congressional action!
            Border security is another, continuing nightmare. The only thing that has kept the smuggling corridors in Dona Ana County from being full blown Arizona Class companion routes are the absence of cartel safe havens on the American side of the border. Designated wilderness and national monument will assure those save havens for the bad guys.
            The Back Story
            A most critical story isn’t being told. What the public sees is another classic federal lands conflict. It has a national security component with an inevitable run back to another public lands rancher debate. A rewilding component could be added for zest, but that still leaves the question why and how this county’s most influential governing bodies could support such anti-agricultural proposals when agriculture in the county returns more than $500,000,000 annually.
 Standing against the proposals are some powerful forces. The National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, the New Mexico Farm Bureau, the Dona Ana County sheriff, the village of Hatch, the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, and more than 800 businesses have opposed all proposals. Their stance has meant nothing.
Ignoring the will of the majority of residents who have duties, responsibilities, and investments on the land affected, the Dona Ana County Commission and the Las Cruces City Council voted a combined 11-0 to pass resolutions supporting the 600,000 acre national monument. The commission then sent a member to Washington to present their resolution to the president with the assurance the county is fully united in support of the national monument.
That commission’s representative, Billy Garrett, is a retired Department of Interior official. He was a Park Service planner, and he knows about the process including contacts for national monument designation. City Councilor Nathan Small works for NMWA, the group that has repeatedly pushed the proposals. He has been assigned to the project since the beginning of the process. Both of these elected officials share a relationship to a man who has engineered an amazing series of campaign victories. Don Kurtz, a progressive campaign strategist and organizer, has successfully managed over 50 Dona Ana County campaigns in the last several years. He has demonstrated he will run a progressive candidate against an incumbent Democrat in a primary if the dynamics support a positive progressive outcome.        
Although some like Democratic City Councilors Greg Smith and Miguel Silva reject the notion, many believe Mr. Kurtz controls each of the votes in the recent 11-0 juggernaut. That is the troubling back story. How many of these organizers exist, and how do they operate without obvious support?
The Dona Ana County outcome is critical to local customs and cultures, but more is at stake. Many believe the persistence of this effort has more to do with future land use modeling than the landscape itself. That is the real story, and it must be stopped.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Congress and Obama administration officials need to know that the only matter of Dona Ana County unity lies with protection of the Organ Mountains … the other 540,000 acres are embroiled in controversy and politics!”  

This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 edition of Range Magazine and is posted here with permission.

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