News & Features

By Helicopter and on Horseback, Zinke Reviews Monuments

Zinke skipped public forum on future of National Monument in southern New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ranchers who want to scale back two national monuments in New Mexico competed for attention with the outdoor recreation industry as U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke conducted a series of private stakeholder meetings linked to a nationwide review of 27 monuments approved by past presidents.

Zinke skipped a heavily attended public forum about the future of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico organized largely by monument supporters, amid a series of private meetings with ranchers, electric utility executives, irrigation district officials and some defenders of the monuments.

On Friday, Zinke’s Twitter feed showed him on a mountain hike in the Organ monument with a military veterans and members of Sierra Club Outdoors, which promotes outdoor recreation.

“I appreciate hearing all sides,” Zinke tweeted. A private meeting was scheduled Friday with the pro-monument group Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.

The secretary’s tightly controlled visit, mostly away from the public’s eye, is stirring concern among business owners — from fishing guides to local homebuilders — who say they increasingly depend on the flow of tourists and outdoor enthusiasts to the monuments.

Bill Blackstock said the designation in 2014 of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument outside Taos has been a boon to his river guide business that floats clients down the monument’s vast Upper Rio Grande Canyon — and helps other fishing, hunting and pack animal outfitters in a rural area with few private employment prospects.

“I think it helps promote our area up in northern New Mexico, just that monument status,” he said. “It helps to control development somewhat.”

President Donald Trump ordered the review of the national monuments based on the belief that a law created by President Theodore Roosevelt allowing presidents to designate monuments has been improperly used to protect wide expanses of lands instead of places with particular historical or archaeological value.

Monument designations protect federal land from energy development and other activities. A final report from Zinke is due next month.

Zinke met Thursday with leading members of a coalition that resisted the 2013 and 2014 monument designations in New Mexico called the Western Heritage Alliance that includes ranchers who fear gradual limitations could drive them out. Livestock grazing has continued undiminished at the monuments.

Zinke “didn’t say what his conclusions were or were not,” said alliance member Tom Mobley, who operates a ranch within the monument under a federal grazing permit. “I think he understood what we told him.”

Zinke has recommended that Bears Ears National Monument on tribal lands in southern Utah be downsized. Zinke has also said three monuments in Colorado, Idaho and Washington will be left alone.

The former Navy SEAL took a tour by helicopter of the jagged spires of the Organ Mountains on Thursday.

His visit also highlighted a partisan political divide, as Zinke attempted to schedule a private horseback ride Saturday with Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, the son of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall.

The two senators are vehemently opposed to proposals to reduce the footprint of the national monuments in New Mexico, citing current benefits to the state economy, environment and preservation of archaeological sites including ancient petroglyphs.

Zinke indicated that he spoke by phone GOP New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who has said the Organ monument is too big.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, the lone Republican lawmaker among New Mexico’s five-member delegation to Washington, has lobbied Zinke to reduce the outline of the Organ monument on the outskirts of Las Cruces from 775 square miles (2010 square kilometers) to about 95 square miles (240 square kilometers). Pearce is running for governor in 2018.