COMMENTARY: The Trump Administration is targeting national monuments in the West for review of their “appropriateness,” threatening to rescind or downsize them if they don’t meet the standards of the Antiquities Act or measure up to the criteria he has chosen.
The latter concept is dangerous, presuming that any president has better judgement than his predecessors.
Because we now need to stand up for the preservation of our monuments, I’ll offer some observations that come from having spent several years working for public land conservation and recently conducting research for a book describing the effort leading to the creation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
The first argument for the monument is that the public wants it. Polling in New Mexico on the topic of topic of public land preservation by wilderness or monument designation has run 60 percent or better since the turn of the century. The most recent polls show that in Doña Ana County 66 percent want to see the monument stay unchanged. Another poll a few months earlier measured over 80 percent as wanting to see wilderness areas as proposed by U.S. Sens. Udall and Heinrich added to the monument.
Some of the best arguments for the monument are the experiences of Doña Ana County since the monument was declared. These contrast with the negative predictions of the opposition, talking points that have mostly been dropped since President Obama made his proclamation on May 21, 2014.
Before designation the concern was that a monument would encourage illegal cross-border activity, threatening the valley with a crime wave. The monument would provide a ready path from south to north for smuggling drugs, contraband and people. You don’t hear much about that today because it hasn’t happened. BLM says there is no noticeable change in border-related illegal activity on the monument and that their contacts with border officials indicated their experience is the same.
Ranchers holding permits to graze cattle on monument rangeland expected to see the heavy hand of Washington descend, making ranching life more difficult, costlier and ultimately unsustainable. That hasn’t happened yet and the local BLM doesn’t expect that its management of the landscape will change much for ranchers.
Its process for creating its monument management plan is up-front and open to public review and comment. Ranching has a special place in our history and ranchers have been included in the 13-year discussion of how to best to manage and protect Doña Ana County public lands. The public record shows that their requests were heard, but unlike most other participants they did not wish to negotiate.
The opposition to the monument warned of a federal “land grab” that would threaten private and state land ownership and rob county government of a portion of its tax base. Citizens would be “locked out” and the land “locked up.” Well, guess what? Government payments in lieu of taxes to the county continue as before, unchanged by the monument. Eminent domain is barred by the Antiquities Act; no “land grab” is possible. State land is untouched.
America’s citizens got a protected open space in which no ownership, management of the land, or money changed hands. Public access is improving with road paving and BLM taking steps to accommodate more visitors and enhance their experience.
The only folks locked out are those wishing to develop, drill or mine who don’t already have permits or leases. For them, the land is locked up. You could argue that Hatch is locked out if it wishes to have flood control structures built upstream on monument grounds, but there is a precedent in New Mexico for large public works being carried out on a sensitive area of a monument for the benefit of a city. All is not lost if Hatch comes up with a plan.
Some businesses and developers worried that the growth of the city would be constrained and pooh-poohed predictions of the economic value of a national monument. The opposite is happening — and with it, a public spirit grows. September’s Monument’s to Mainstream is not a bust. A number of home builders and realtors and business owners are taking advantage of the monument, creating new products, advertising nationally and reporting success. One has told me that that his company’s boost related to protected public lands is in the millions.
By the end of the second fiscal year of the monument’s existence the BLM-measured visitation to Organ Mountains sites alone was running at 2.5 times the level prior to designation. At halfway through the current fiscal year it was running more than double what it did last year and could break 300,000.
Four multi-day conferences were booked into Las Cruces hotels in 2015 and 2016 because of the monument. Hotels are renovating, touting the three monuments near the city and their location minutes away from Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.
The numbers I have seen suggest that the annual economic benefit approaches and may exceed the $7.4 million predicted by the Headwaters Institute prior to designation.
The new attack by the Trump Administration on the monument originates with the movement to sell or transfer public lands to the states, ultimately for sale or exploitation. Backers of the attack argue that the terms of the Antiquities Act were violated by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama based on the Act’s authorization to the president:
“…the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
The claim is then made that these three presidents overstepped their bounds by creating monuments in which there were no historic or prehistoric landmarks, structures or objects suitable for protection; or that monuments are supposed to be confined to small areas easily within a bounded enclosure.
President Theodore Roosevelt has been cited as the ideal in his selection of El Morro and Gila Cliff Dwellings, both 160 acres. This purposely overlooks Teddy’s designation of Chaco Canyon, a bit larger than needed for the ruins, followed by Grand Canyon, over 900,000 acres, and Mount Olympus in Washington State, 625,000 acres.
How could the president who signed the Antiquities Act of 1906 not have understood its terms or made such an egregious error?
Roosevelt’s action was not an error or a perversion of the intent of the act. The last criteria for monument selection is “scientific interest.” His proclamations for both large landscape monuments cite “unusual scientific interest” — Grand Canyon for its scale, the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula for their glaciers and breeding grounds for herds of Olympic Elk.
Natural history and earth science have been used as reasons for designation by presidents to create other large BLM monuments, now within the National Landscape Conservation System formalized by Congress. Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is a member.
President Roosevelt’s proclamations fit into a few paragraphs on less than a single page, and we don’t question them or his wisdom today. The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks proclamation runs four pages or more of details. These weren’t aimless ramblings as has been charged; rather, they are the evidence of a thoughtful consideration of the historical context of the landscape, one that justifies the naming of specific items, places and natural values worthy of protection.
One of these is the Chihuahua Desert ecosystem. You may not agree, but President Obama found America’s portion of the Chihuahua Desert as deserving of protection, as were portions of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and the Mojave Desert in California, each chosen by previous presidents. Each of our great Southwestern deserts has unique flora and fauna, and every monument within them was the result of years of struggle and advocacy by their supporters and the public that joined them.
Go out this evening and watch the sun go down. You will like what you see if you live in Las Cruces. If you think you deserve it, you will fight for it.
James Hickerson is a longtime resident of New Mexico who retired as an engineer/scientist to work on conservation issues in the state. He is currently researching the natural history of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and the events leading to its designation.