- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The battle over the Trump administration’s review of two national monuments in New Mexico is bringing up a historic clash that goes back generations and is tainted by race, heritage and the right to land.

And both sides are framing it as a civil rights issue.

Those who support keeping the monument designation say it is about preserving ancient Native American petroglyphs, helping bring tourism to area battling poverty and setting aside important New Mexico landscape where outlaw Billy the Kid and Apache leader Geronimo once sought refuge.

Opponents, like some Hispanic ranchers with ties to the region that go back generations, say the designations are just another attempt by the federal government to attack grazing rights and water access while discounting their historical connection to the land.

These are the tensions that will greet U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is scheduled to visit Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Thursday in connection with the Trump administration’s review of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

He is slated to meet with supporters and opponents after touring the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument by helicopter.

But Zinke is not scheduled to attend a heated town hall meeting at the Las Cruces Convention Center where supporters of the monument designations promise to project large Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument images and promotional videos.

His meetings on Friday with the Mescalero Apache and Organ Mountains Desert Peaks proponents are closed to the press.

The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in northern New Mexico and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near the U.S.-Mexico border are among 27 monuments where a review ordered by President Donald Trump might remove protections previously considered irreversible under the Obama Administration.

The review is rekindling a fierce debate about oversight of lands marked by ancient petroglyphs and towering mountain spires in New Mexico.

Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the monument designations have “an overwhelming” and diverse base of support, which includes the mayors of Las Cruces, Mesilla, Anthony and Sunland Park

“The monument designations protect some iconic landscape from future oil and gas development,” Allison said. “We’ve certainly seen an increase in tourism, visitations and economic development connected to the monuments.”

The designations also are protecting sites where the Apollo missions trained for the moon landing and those connected to ancient Native American pueblos.

But Dave Sanchez, a New Mexico rancher and a member of the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association, said the designations hurt Hispanic ranchers whose families have long fought the federal government over uses of historical land ties in colonial Spanish land grants.

“This is a massive land grab in northern New Mexico,” Sanchez said. “Our people are being displaced, and our heritage is not being respected.”

Since the designation, Sanchez said some cattle families have been denied access to the Rio Grande - something that has been protected for generations. Others are facing problems over grazing,

Sanchez said the Trump Administration’s review as created supporters among some New Mexico Hispanic ranchers who are rarely asked about their opinions.

“We live in some of the poorest areas in America,” Sanchez said. “We can’t keep our kids here, and this is making it worse.”


Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at https://twitter.com/russcontreras

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