President Obama this past week announced the creation of a national monument in southern New Mexico — the 500,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, which contains hiking trails, Native American ruins and Outlaw Rock, where Billy the Kid inscribed his name.
Obama did so with a wave of his pen under the controversial American Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorizes the president at his discretion to set aside “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled” by the federal government.
As was the case when President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah in 1996, many of the residents near this New Mexico monument are furious with the designation and fear it will lead to a reduction in grazing rights and limitations on other productive uses for the land.
Half of the land involved in the New Mexico designation is to be set aside as wilderness, meaning it would be closed to vehicles and construction and mining.
As was the case with Grand Staircase, this designation is also seen as an election year sop to environmentalists in the Democratic Party.
As was the case in 1996, Obama promised the designation would provide a positive economic impact on the local community. “Outdoor recreation at parks and forests and other public lands brings in tourism dollars,” Obama said.
But two Utah professors this past year released a report showing that monuments are more likely to have negative impacts than positive ones, as was the case with Grand Staircase. “We found none of the predicted increases in economic activity,” they wrote.
Obama’s action looks suspiciously like an opening round in a bid to carry out a plan — first outlined in a secret Bureau of Land Management memo in 2010 — that would lock up an area about the size of Colorado and Wyoming combined or about half of the BLM’s 264 million acres.
The Congressional Western Caucus released a copy of the 2010 memo — which is headed “Internal Draft – NOT FOR RELEASE” and labeled “Treasured Landscapes.” The memo lists more than two dozen specific areas from which the BLM seeks to lock out most human activity. Three of those are in Nevada.
Several media accounts of the New Mexico land grab warned that it could lead to conflicts like the one that recently occurred in the Gold Butte area when the BLM tried to roundup rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle but were faced down by armed citizens protesting the confiscation.
Interestingly, the second item on the BLM’s list of Treasured Landscapes, just above the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks area, is Gold Butte, Nev.: “Northeast of Las Vegas, Gold Butte is named for a historic mining town and tent city of 1,000 miners in the early 1900’s (sic). Gold Butte is much more than remnants of early mining. It is 360,000 acres of rugged mountains, Joshua tree and Mojave yucca forests, outcroppings of sandstone, and braided washes that turn into slot canyons. Gold Butte is important to numerous wildlife species, including desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, the banded Gila monster, great horned owls and a great variety of reptiles, birds and mammals. Gold Butte has abundant archaeological resources, including rock art, caves, agave roasting pits and camp sites dating back at least 3,000 years, and notable historical resources that deserve conservation, including Spanish and pioneer mining camps dating back to the 1700s.”
The memo also lists Heart of the Great Basin, Nev., which from the description appears to be a swath from roughly Austin to Tonopah in Lander and Nye counties. Another area is Owyhee Desert on the Nevada-Oregon border in Elko County. No acreage was listed for these two areas.
The Western Caucus described the 2010 memo as a plan to grab millions of acres of Western land: “The President is going down the list, and sealing off vast swaths of the West on behalf of his special interest allies, who view our states as their personal playground.”
The BLM secret memo recommended that the president use the American Antiquities Act to set aside national monuments, which is precisely what Obama did with this past week’s designation.
The memo also calls for “maintaining healthy wildlife populations, ecosystems, airsheds, watersheds, and riparian areas” — without deigning to mention that most of those watersheds and riparian areas include privately held water rights.
Western Caucus Co-Chairman Steve Pearce, a New Mexico congressman, said this is the latest example of the president bypassing Congress and the American people to push his special interest agenda.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.