Wednesday, May 24, 2017

An Abuse of the Antiquities Act

by Myles Culbertson

The Western Conservationist Movement is a consortium of organizations sharing common concerns about the unnecessary removal of large masses federal lands to restricted status under the guise of national monuments or wilderness.  In the case of the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks declaration under the Antiquities Act, a number of critical questions were ignored and otherwise deflected, to be dealt with after the fact.  Not unexpectedly, none of these questions were addressed once the half-million acre monument was formalized.

Grazing in this part of the country has been an economic and cultural phenomenon since the era of settlement that followed Spanish exploration of the region.  Ranchers over the past several decades have enjoyed a cooperative partnership with the Bureau of Land Management that has demonstrably protected and preserved the beauty, diversity and sensitive ecology of these lands.  History confirms that, in large transformations of federal lands to “protected status,” like the Sonoran Desert and Escalante Grand Staircase monuments, those partnerships become vulnerable to adverse legal actions that diminish and ultimately remove the collaborative grazing relationships.  Regardless of numerous requests to recognize these culturally and ecologically important grazing traditions as monument purposes, no government effort to address the issue was ever initiated.

The Rio Grande valley is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the country as well as a very desirable region in which to live, giving rise to numerous communities, large and small, up and down that valley.  A desert environment like ours can also be the setting for incredibly large and destructive flash floods, and that kind of floodwater frequently threatens the complex sensitive system of irrigation in the valley and its populated communities.  A recent example is the 2006 destruction that occurred in Hatch, NM.  Prevention is critically dependent upon access to the upper watershed in order to build large and small structures to spread and slow such flood-waters.  Besides protecting the valley, these types of projects preserve and improve the biological diversity of the watershed.  This type of mitigation was not sufficiently included among the stated monument purposes, and the safety of lands, property, infrastructure, and people are in question as a result.

Regardless of the vague idea of a buffer zone between the U.S./Mexico border and the vast monument area, no assurance exists that this wholesale removal of land, restricting access by law enforcement and homeland security personnel, will not result in a massive corridor for human trafficking, drug smuggling, and other dangerous criminal movement.  The undeniable precedent of ecological destruction, as well as danger to residents, tourists and local citizens is easily found in the nearby Sonoran Desert Monument in Arizona.  In that case, the ostensible “monument” protection of a very sensitive ecology is actually contributing to its destruction.  Specific language preserving access, road infrastructure, and jurisdictions for federal, state, and county authorities was intentionally excluded from the Organ Mountain Desert Peaks monument’s purposes.  As a result, the ecology and people of Dona Ana County have been put at risk.

The foregoing describes only three of a number of questions that remained intentionally unanswered in this massive removal of federal lands under the guise of monument protection. 

The Western Conservationist Movement is not opposed to, and in fact supports, a monument encompassing the Organ Mountains; however, what we have seen is a massive, far-reaching and impactful abuse of the Antiquities Act reflected by the removal of half a million acres of federal lands reaching all the way from the Organ Mountains to Luna County.  It is a vast, ill-conceived, ill-advised, unaccountable action that threatens the culture, natural productivity, and ecological balance of the region, as well as the safety and security of its citizens.

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