Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Stephen Jones: Hundreds Demand Passage of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act
This story was filed by Stephen Jones ... DFNM, Southern New Mexico Bureau. Well, Jones is a contributing writer who is a progressive political activist and a resident of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
An overflow crowd of over 800 attended the field hearing held by the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman. Also in attendance were Senator Tom Udall and U.S. Representative Harry Teague. The hearing was held to take public testimony on Senate Bill S.1689, which would protect 376,000 acres of land in Dona Ana County, including the Organ Mountains. The Presidents' Day hearing was held at New Mexico State University’s Corbett Center. It appeared that proponents of the bill in the crowd outnumbered those against it by about eight to one.
Under the provisions of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act, 259,000 acres would be designated as wilderness area, which proponents have termed the “gold standard” of protection of natural lands. In addition to the iconic Organ Mountains, the bill would protect portions of the Portrillo, Uvas, and Robledo Mountains, as well as Broad Canyon and some transitional mesa land east of Las Cruces. The pending legislation reflects decades of public support for wilderness protection and years of negotiation between competing public and private interests over designation.
The committee heard testimony from three panels including elected officials from Las Cruces, Mesilla and Dona Ana County and eight speakers representing organizations supporting and opposing wilderness designation for the Organ Mountains. All of the local elected officials, including Sharon Thomas, Mayor Pro Tem of Las Cruces, Michael Cadena, Mayor of Mesilla, and Leticia Duarte-Benavidez, Chair of the Dona Ana Board of County Commissioners, expressed enthusiastic support on behalf of their communities.
Congressman Harry Teague, who joined in questioning the witnesses, expressed support for the public lands, but did not commit himself to the pending legislation. “The peaks of the Organ Mountains define Las Cruces, just as the Empire State Building defines New York City and Cowboys Stadium defines Dallas,” Teague said. Rep. Teague reiterated his opposition to selling public lands to private interests. Bingaman and Udall are co-sponsors of the legislation.
Proponents speaking on behalf of designation included Nathan Small of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and John Munoz of the Hispano Chamber of Commerce. Speakers opposed to designation included Gary Eslinger of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) and John Hummer of the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce.
Also speaking for the wilderness bill was Rolando Trevino of El Paso Natural Gas Company. El Paso Natural Gas, among the nations’ largest natural gas enterprises, operates almost 2800 miles of pipeline in New Mexico. Trevino praised Sen. Bingaman and Committee for creating an agreement that allows the wilderness area and his company's natural gas infrastructure to “peacefully coexist.”
About a dozen Tea Party members from the Las Cruces and Alamogordo areas protested outside the hearing.
In the hearing Commissioner Duarte-Benevidez appealed to the Senators to protect for future generations the “same solitude I enjoyed as a child in Dona Ana County.” She warned against the kind of destructive mountainside construction that has “ruined” the natural areas of Phoenix and El Paso.
Mayor Cardenas also appealed for passage stating that the “open spaces and cultural integrity” of his community would be enhanced by the designation. Mayor Pro Tem Thomas, whose Las Cruces City Council district abuts the proposed wilderness, stated that the City of Las Cruces “has all the room it needs for future growth.” Thomas told the Committee that “open lands enhance border security,” and urged the Committee to proceed with passage “with all due haste.”
Speaking against the measure, Gary Eslinger said that “global warming has created a moving target” and that wilderness designation would impede future flood control measures. He said that flood control needed to be developed at the source. When questioned by Senator Udall as to how high construction of flood control structures should go, Eslinger stated he “didn’t know.” Udall asked if he had expressed his concerns to the local governmental bodies. Eslinger responded, “No.”
John Hummer of the Chamber of Commerce urged the Committee to abandon wilderness designation in favor of a less restrictive Natural Conservation Area. Hummer told the committee that the restrictive wilderness designation would impede border patrol enforcement. He said that the compromise buffer zone worked out between the border patrol and wilderness activists was not “wide enough,” and pointed to the Pipe Organ National Park in Arizona as an example of the dangers of wilderness designation. He termed the National Park “the most dangerous in America.”
Nathan Small, speaking on behalf of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, praised the work of the Committee and the efforts of local officials, conservationists and business leaders in hammering out a compromise bill that supports the rights of sportsmen, expands border security, livestock grazing rights, and flood control, while enhancing natural protection and recreation opportunities.
John Munoz, head of Sitel Corporation, speaking on behalf of the Hispano Chamber of Commerce, said that designation was “good for business and good for the environment.” He cited the pristine condition of the Organ Mountains and the recreational opportunites in the Las Cruces area as the reasons he moved his business from Texas. Speaking of the iconic nature of the Organ Mountains Munoz said, “Branding has happened naturally. Wilderness expands our business and development.” Munoz told the committee, “We’ve come to a consensus and it’s time to act.”
Senators Bingaman and Udall will continue to take public testimony on the bill, in writing, through Friday, February 19. Written testimony will be accepted at their respective New Mexico constituent field offices.
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