COMMENTARY: New Mexico has a rich history, with abundant sites of historical significance that often predate anything else in the United States. Yet, only about 50 of our country’s 2,500 national historic landmarks are located in New Mexico. The Department of the Interior only created two new national historic landmarks in New Mexico during the Obama administration.
Going forward, local grassroots organizations and preservation advocates may find the National Historic Landmark Program an important mechanism to protect important sites while avoiding partisan gridlock.
The National Park Service maintains the National Historic Landmark Program to recognize sites with special historic and cultural value. A site must have national significance in order to qualify as a national historic landmark, such as a place where an event occurred that impacted our nation’s history, a place associated with an important historical figure, or a site with major archeological value.
Common examples of sites that fit into these categories are birthplaces, battlefields, or historical ruins.
A national historic landmark does not need to be a building. It can simply be a piece of land where something nationally significant took place. The Trinity Site at the very north end of White Sands Missile Range in an example of such a place in New Mexico. The Trinity Site is where the government tested the first atomic weapon on Earth in 1945. The Trinity Site is nothing more than an empty piece of desert with a lone rock monument, yet it is an important national historic landmark.
The process to create a national historic landmark typically begins locally and is ultimately subject to approval by the U.S. secretary of the interior. Neither the president nor Congress need to approve the secretary of the interior’s designation. Some may say this is an overreach of federal executive power; however, it also allows the secretary to protect important and often endangered historic sites during times of partisan deadlock.
President Obama has used the Antiquities Act to create new national monuments at sites that may have traditionally been designated national historic landmarks. The Antiquities Act allows the president to carve out monuments on federal land in order to recognize sites with important cultural, historical and scientific significance.
President Obama created the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad and Cesar E. Chavez national monuments to protect places with historical significance that could have also been designated national historic landmarks.
If campaign promises prove true, we are not likely to see any new national monuments during the next presidential administration. In fact, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, recently called on President-elect Trump’s administration to rescind all recent national monuments, to include two in New Mexico — the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos County and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument around Las Cruces.
In many ways, state governments are less likely to view national historic landmarks as a “federal land grab” because the land never changes hands. A private or state-owned national historic landmark remains with its owner — it simply receives special federal recognition. Therefore, while the National Historic Landmark Program provides less protection than national monument designation, it is also less likely to face local opposition.
Otero Mesa is a large desert grassland located near Orogrande, N.M. that needs to be protected soon and may qualify as a national historic landmark. Aside from the grassland’s ecological significance, Otero Mesa is home to thousands of ancient petroglyphs and archaeological sites.
Otero Mesa is truly an oasis in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. Our ancient ancestors likely roamed the grassland because of the many species of plants and animals that call it home. Mining and drilling operations threaten Otero Mesa, and past efforts to designate it a national monument have failed. Local groups could move to designate Otero Mesa a national historic landmark in order to protect it for future generations.
Otero Mesa is only one of many important sites in New Mexico that advocates are trying to protect. The National Historic Landmark Program may prove more important than ever to protecting New Mexico’s cultural and historical identity.
Patrick Doyle is an administrative law attorney, Arizona Law graduate, and New Mexico-area resident. He worked on the staff of the Arizona Journal of Environmental Law and Policy during law school.