By Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2014

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) - After a hike through southern New Mexico’s rugged desert landscape, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Friday it’s clear why the state is known as the Land of Enchantment.

Jewell toured Broad Canyon outside of Las Cruces before headlining a public meeting centered on federal legislation for protecting the Organ Mountains and other scenic areas in Dona Ana County.

The legislation would carve out 780 square miles - about one-fifth of the county - and designate it as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. It would include eight new wilderness areas featuring steep rock outcroppings, petroglyphs, ancient lava flows and sites such as Bill the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, Geromino’s Cave and the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail.

Jewell said the area has a rich history as well as many opportunities for enjoying the outdoors through hiking and hunting.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a groundswell of support from many in the community to ensure that these landscapes are celebrated and passed on to the generations of New Mexicans to come,” Jewell said. “Those efforts also have the potential to drive significant economic benefits to the region through a boost in tourism and outdoor recreation.”

Jewell also met Thursday with U.S. Border Patrol officials to underscore her agency’s commitment to cooperate when it comes to law enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Critics of the legislation have voiced concerns about law enforcement officers having adequate access to the area to patrol for drug smugglers, gangs and other illegal activities.

The Southwestern Border Sheriffs’ Coalition is among those leading the charge against the proposal.

“This law would make a difficult task even more difficult in controlling the border and protecting the homeland,” Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison, the group’s chairman, wrote in a letter to U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who introduced the latest iteration of the legislation.

Monument supporters have dismissed the sheriffs’ concerns, pointing to a clause in the bill that would allow the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to continue with border-security activities. The military would also be allowed to continue training flights over the proposed monument.

Efforts to protect the area date back more than a decade.

Since the monument would encompass such a large swath of Dona Ana County, some are concerned tighter federal control would stifle existing businesses that depend on the land and limit public access.

“I would point to the most recent government shutdown in October, when signs were hung on monuments all over the country saying ‘Closed,’ ” said David Clements, a Republican running for Udall’s Senate seat. “I can tell you the Organ Mountains did not close during the shutdown.”

Many people at Friday’s meeting were wearing green stickers in support of the proposed monument. Local religious leaders were among them.

Rabbi Larry Karol of Las Cruces said he was optimistic Jewell would return to Washington and advocate for the legislation.

“The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region is a precious gift from God,” Karol said. “We have been called to be stewards over these lands, and it is our responsibility to do everything we can to protect them for future generations to experience.”

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