Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act

Yeah, I know, I never post anything here. Well, in any case…

I have mixed feelings about the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act, but on the whole I think it is a bad idea. This act would create a new National Monument in the Organ Mountains and several nearby mountain ranges in Doña Ana County. It is being presented (as indicated by the name) as a conservation measure. There seems to be a common, but generally unexamined, belief that designation of wilderness, national monuments, and various other sorts of “special” public land is inherently a good thing for conservation. However, we should ask ourselves: 1) What are the threats to this land? 2) How will those threats be reduced or eliminated by this designation? 3) What other effects will this designation have–will it create new threats to the landscape, or reduce public access to it?

1) This is answered in one word: grazing. In short, we know that grazing has had severe negative impacts on the local landscape and we do not know if any level of grazing exists that will not simply continue those negative impacts. Other threats to public lands in the area include off-road vehicles (so far as I know, these are already disallowed within the proposed monument), mining (although there are no active mining claims in the proposed monument so far as I know), herbicide use (undertaken by the BLM in an attempt to “restore” historic grasslands–not currently occurring within the proposed monument so far as I am aware, but the program is continually expanding), residential development (through occasional sale of BLM lands–again, not currently occurring within the proposed monument so far as I am aware), and hunting (and, more than hunting itself, the various land management practices that federal agencies engage in to promote hunting–e.g., wildlife watering stations, vegetation management intended to increase forage available for game species, attempts to reduce or eliminate predators).

2) The act specifically states that existing grazing will be maintained. So the biggest threat to the landscape is intended to continue. For the remaining, lesser threats: OHV use, although already disallowed, could potentially be reduced by better enforcement; I don’t know how either mining or damaging “restoration” efforts would be affected, if at all; sale of BLM land for residential development would presumably not occur within a national monument, but the areas of the proposed monument are mostly, if not entirely, places where such development is impracticable or already exceedingly unlikely to happen; hunting would continue, although it is not clear if the various adverse impacts from game management would be increased, decreased, or remain unchanged. So, in short, the major threat would be unaffected and for the others there is, at least, not much to expect designation as a monument to have any significant impact. There might be gains, there might not. One would hope that, if a purported conservation measure will not address the major threat to the landscape, that at least such lesser threats would be clearly addressed and measures to reduce them be required in the act, but this does not seem to be the case.

3) After conservation, the second main selling point of the act seems to be that it would be good for business. It would bring more visitors and more money into the area. That, unquestionably, means an increase of threats to the landscape. More development, more people, more adverse human impact. The act does not discuss public access in much detail. Existing roads will continue to be accessible, but will there be more fee stations? More gates that are locked for much of the time? National Monuments also typically have much stronger restrictions on recreational activity–limits on camping outside of established (and generally expensive, crowded, and noisy) campgrounds, limits on off-trail hiking, and, of particular interest to academic botanists like myself, limits on collection of plant specimens or other research & educational activity. To what extent will these exist in the proposed monument? I haven’t a clue. It’s possible, I suppose, that designation as a national monument would not involve any such increase in restrictions on public access, but comparison to other established national monuments (e.g., White Sands N.M.) makes this seem extremely unlikely.

So, the take-home message seems to be: Designation as a national monument will not have any significant conservation value (it will not address the present primary threat, does not appear to be likely to have a substantial impact on lesser threats, and will create new threats to the landscape) and will probably increase the restrictions on and/or commodification of public access. At best, it’s a wash. At worst, it allows the existing damaging practices to continue unimpeeded while creating more tourist traffic, more development, and reducing public access.