Supporters of New Mexico monument areas vow to keep pushing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Tribal leaders, conservationists and elected leaders gathered Thursday to express their frustrations and keep pressure on the White House to ensure two national monument areas in New Mexico remain intact.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and several dozen people packed an REI store in Albuquerque while others took to the historic Mesilla plaza in southern New Mexico to show their support for Organ Mountains-Desert Peak and the Rio Grande del Norte.

"These places aren’t just about outdoor recreation. They’re not just about land. They’re about our culture and history and trying to live up to the greatest potential of that culture and history," said Heinrich, a Democrat.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said he won’t seek to rescind any of the national monument designations that were reviewed, but he will press for some boundary changes.

Twenty-seven monument areas were identified for a review by President Donald Trump, who insisted that the millions of acres designated for protection by the Obama administration were part of a massive federal land grab.

Some New Mexicans agree, including Hispanic ranchers who argue that the designations attack grazing rights and water access while discounting historical connections from Spanish colonial land grants.

The ranchers said they were encouraged about the possibility of changes. Monument supporters dug in their heels.

Near the southern New Mexico border, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks was established in 2014. It’s home to desert grasslands, rugged mountain peaks and historic sites, including a volcanic crater used by Apollo astronauts for lunar training and the tracks of the Butterfield Overland stagecoach route.

It also features thousands of petroglyphs, areas visited by outlaw Billy the Kid and the stone ruins of the Dripping Springs mountain resort founded in the late 1800s.

Rio Grande del Norte encompasses rugged terrain near the New Mexico-Colorado border, with the river cutting a deep gorge through the plains and volcanic cones such as Ute Mountain providing markers along the horizon.

"The president’s executive order in this sham of a review process is not only an assault on our nation’s historic, cultural and natural history, it’s an insult to the local communities who worked for decades to protect these iconic landscapes," said Michael Casaus, head of The Wilderness Society in New Mexico.

He praised tribes that have worked to keep sacred places from being looted or vandalized and small businesses that have grown thanks to increased visitors.

He suggested any change would result in the loss of jobs and tourism.

"We’re gathered here today to say that an attack on one of our national monuments is an attack on all of them," he told several dozen supporters.

Marc Berejka, head of government affairs for outdoor retail giant REI, was at the rally in Albuquerque.

"People in Washington, D.C., they need to make no mistake that we are united in our shared passion for our public lands," Berejka said.

Dave Sanchez, a member of the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association, said his fellow ranchers aren’t against tourism or a monument area but that designations should be limited to what needs protection. He pointed to the gorge lining the Rio Grande.

"Tourism is based on people coming out here to see unique things. They come out here to see the Native American stuff, they come out here to the cowboys, they come out here to see the footprints that people like Kit Carson and Billy the Kid made on the land, and those things exist because people had access to those lands," Sanchez said.

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