President Obama on Wednesday will declare a national monument in southern New Mexico, delivering a win for environmentalists but angering ranchers and local law enforcement, who say the land restrictions will end up creating a safe haven for drug cartels to operate within the U.S.
Mr. Obama will declare about 500,000 acres as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. About half of that land is expected to be set aside as wilderness, meaning it will be closed to vehicles and construction.
Local ranchers say it's a land grab that will interfere with their grazing rights, and border security advocates said the move will make it tougher for federal agents and local police to patrol the land, leaving a security gap that Mexican smuggling cartels will exploit.
"This is about opposing so many thousands of acres that is going to create nothing more than a pathway for criminals to get into this country to do their criminal acts," Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison told The Washington Times in a telephone interview Monday.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency refuted the claim that the national monument designation would threaten border security.
"This designation will in no way limit our ability to perform our important border security mission, and in fact provides important flexibility as we work to meet this ongoing priority," said spokeswoman Jenny Burke. "CBP is committed to continuing to work closely with the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to maintain border security while ensuring the protection of the environment along the border."
The monument has been in the works for some time and has been controversial from the start.
Conservationists and tourism businesses have been pushing for the designation, hoping it will bring more visitors.
"The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument will help protect our way of life while allowing for responsible development and expanding opportunities for all Americans to enjoy the beauty and multi-cultural history of this unique landscape," Billy Garrett, Dona Ana County Commission chairman, said in a statement.
But land rights advocates said it is the precursor to more conflicts like the recent standoff in Nevada, where a rancher refused to comply with a court order that he stop grazing on Bureau of Land Management property, prompting the BLM to confiscate his cattle, though they were returned after a public outcry.
The BLM, which is part of the Interior Department, will administer the national monument.
The land contains five mountain ranges with fragile landscapes, prehistoric rock art and more recent historic sites such as a training area for the Apollo astronauts.
The monument would cover hundreds of thousands of acres right next to the Mexican border.
New Mexico's representatives in Congress have been divided over the monument. Rep. Stevan Pearce, a Republican, called for a 50,000-acre monument, one-tenth the size of the one Mr. Obama will designate.
But the half-million-acre proposal has the backing of the state's U.S. senators, both of them Democrats.
"An Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument will preserve important cultural links to our past and strengthen southern New Mexico's economy by boosting tourism and recreational opportunities, like hunting, hiking, camping, and horseback riding," Sen. Martin Heinrich said in a statement.
Only Congress can declare a national park, which stops most land uses. But under the 1906 Antiquities Act the president has the power to declare national monuments, which offer heightened environmental protections.
The New Mexico monument is Mr. Obama's second designation this year. In March, he added 1,600 acres in the Point Arena-Stornetta region to the California Coastal National Monument established by President Clinton in 2000. House Republicans said the action wasn't necessary because they had passed similar legislation that was awaiting Senate action.
About half the Organ Mountains monument will be designated as wilderness, the highest level of protection, closing it to motorized vehicles and human construction.
Sheriff Garrison said that will shut down roads that his department uses to patrol the land, though he said the cartels are unlikely to stop using it just because it is declared wilderness.
"My fear is these areas will be used more than they are now because they'll have access to it that will be private and closed off to every law-abiding citizen," the sheriff said. "I believe this monument will hamper law enforcement's ability to effectively patrol the area we need to patrol."
Administration officials said the declaration will incorporate a 2006 agreement between the Interior Department and the Homeland Security Department that allows U.S. Border Patrol some access to the land.
That agreement prevents most routine patrols through wilderness, though it does allow them to continue to follow smugglers in hot pursuit.
The agreement has been controversial for both sides of the immigration debate. Environmentalists and some immigrant rights advocates argue that the Border Patrol has used the arrangement to trample pristine land. Border security advocates say agents' hands are tied when they are in pursuit of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who has studied the issue, argues that the environmental restrictions have indeed hurt the Border Patrol's ability to do its job.
Hours before news of the designation broke Monday, Mr. Bishop, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee's public lands subcommittee, sent a letter to Mr. Obama asking him to hold off until the border can be controlled.
"It's irresponsible to focus efforts on new land designations rather than finding solutions to existing criminal activities plaguing the border," the congressman wrote.
Mr. Bishop pointed to a case that was in the headlines last week, in which a National Park Service employee at Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona detailed the vicious attack she suffered at the hands of an illegal immigrant. Authorities said the man smashed her head into a metal bathroom door and hit her head with a rock, striking so hard that the rock broke.
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