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Monday, September 20, 2010

Wild Lands Take Center Stage in Southern New Mexico

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Contributing writer Stephen Jones checks in with another report from Southern New Mexico.

Wilderness designation and natural lands preservation along with the economic potential of wild lands was center stage in southern New Mexico at events held in Las Cruces and Alamogordo on Saturday and Sunday.

NMWA Hosts Organ Mountains Event in Las Cruces
Over 150 supporters of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act turned out to sample traditional picnic fare, to learn about local wildlife, to rally and to sign petitions in support of wilderness designation and protection of the iconic mountains that adjoin New Mexico’s second largest city. Also featured were a full range of activities for school-age children that were geared toward learning about the natural world. The Las Cruces event was sponsored by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

NMWF Forum in Alamogordo on Otero Mesa
Somewhat more contentious was a forum held on Saturday evening in Alamogordo that focused on the future of Otero Mesa, a wild grassland in New Mexico’s south central Otero County. The forum, titled “Protected Land, Protected Economy,” was held at the Tays Center at the Alamogordo campus of New Mexico State University and sponsored by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. At issue was a general airing of economic and environmental issues centered on the wild grassland that has been called “America’s Serengeti.” About 75 area residents turned out for the Alamogordo event.

Otero Mesa is under consideration as a potential National Monument among other potential uses. Otero Mesa is presently under the administration of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Goal: Open Dialogue
Wally Kern, a local sportsman who moderated the event, stated that the intent of the forum was to “clear up some murky waters” regarding the potential uses and economic impact of the Otero Mesa on the region. Kern noted that most area residents, including those in the audience, had “strong opinions,” often on opposite sides in relation to the future of the grassland. He urged residents “to step back and talk.”

State Senator Steve Fischmann of Las Cruces, who keynoted the event, stated that the greatest challenge facing Otero County was to “open dialog” among all parties and assure the interests of all parties were addressed, and all interests “brought to the table” before a final designation of the contested public lands are made.

Land Uses
Among the uses of the land identified by the speakers at the event were hunting, birding, regional tourism and other related sporting uses of the grassland, along with the traditional ranching that has occurred through leasing arrangements on the national lands. Oil and gas exploration, an issue that brought the area into conflict in the last decade, is largely now seen as off the table. 

Sen. Fischmann noted that new technologies that have made access to larger reserves elsewhere cheaper and more accessible and have made the potential of oil and gas drilling in Otero County a “mute issue.” The large reserve of potable water under the Mesa was another issue addressed at the forum. “I’m hoping all of the interests can come together and make good use of Otero Mesa,” Fischmann said.

Economic Benefits of Eco-Tourism
Ben Alexander, an economic analyst and Associate Director of Headwaters Economics Institute of Montana outlined Otero County’s current economic profile. According to Alexander, 35% of Otero’s income is government related due the large military presence in the area. 52% of the area economy is service related. Alexander warned that there has been a large out-migration of younger residents in recent decades for economic reasons. “People are choosing to leave,” Alexander said. Alexander compared Otero to other rural communities who have successfully rebuilt local economies through ecological tourism.

Gill Sorg, a Las Cruces City Councillor, a former rancher and a member of the Audubon Society, outlined the potential economic benefits to the area from the birding community and other ecotourism. “Birders are no featherweights,” Sorg said. He pointed out that ecotourism is now the second largest industry in New Mexico. Otero Mesa has become a recognized destination for birders and other eco-tourists. Wally Kern, speaking on behalf of area sportsman, echoed that hunting and other wildlife-associated revenue account for $823 million in revenue for New Mexico through licensing and related business earnings.

Examples of National Monument Benefits
Susan Hand
, the co-owner of Willow Canyon Outdoor Company, outlined her experience as a small business owner in southwest Utah. Her business has grown exponentially since the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. She credited the growth of her business and other businesses and cultural institutions in the area to the “branding” of the area created by proximity to the national monument. But, she noted, the sudden designation of the public land by the Clinton Administration under the Antiquities Act had left bitter feelings in the area with many of her neighbors. She urged Otero County residents to be proactive in the planning for public lands in New Mexico.

Ray Hatch, former Mayor of Taft, California, also credited wilderness designation and national “branding” with the economic turnaround of his community. “We are an oil and gas community and always will be,” Hatch said, but credited the designation of the Carrizo Plain National Monument with a reversal of the declining economy of his community, which has become a gateway city for the monument. “In the past the managers and supervisors, the people with high-paying jobs in the gas industry, lived and worked in our town,” Hatch said. “They no longer do. The National Monument has reversed the pattern of board-ups of stores in our downtown,” he said.

Tea Party Conflict
A wide range of opinions from the audience were expressed, but most of the conflict at the forum originated from a small contingent of Tea Party activists in attendance, much of which was targeted at Senator Fischmann, whom they termed an “outsider.” “Get out of our county and leave us alone!” shouted one of the Tea Party members at Fischmann.

Community Should Stay Involved
In the question and answer period following the presentations, Susan Hand and Mayor Hatch suggested that Otero residents were unlikely to be “left alone” in the final designation of the public lands. They urged the community to remain “open and active” to new partnerships in finally determining the future of the Otero Mesa.

All photos by Stephen Jones. To see more posts by Stephen, visit our archive.

September 20, 2010 at 06:05 PM in By Stephen Jones, Contributing Writer, Energy, Environment, Events, Land Issues, Las Cruces, Otero County | Permalink


Great to see coverage about these important events down south. It helps grow support for our good candidates and their good policies. We have treasures here and we have to protect them. Thanks.

Posted by: Robert Chavez | Sep 20, 2010 10:59:19 PM

The crazy tea party types are against the progress made in the 20th century and the progress we can make in this century on almost every issue. If they want to travel back into idealized eras of the past they should find a time machine and get out of the way of real leaders.

Posted by: Kathy | Sep 21, 2010 8:20:30 AM