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Las Cruces Sun-News: Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks looks to remain wild

As an avid hunter, there is no place I’d rather live than Doña Ana County, because hunting opportunities in southern New Mexico are second to none and the scenic beauty is breathtaking. I’ve trekked through the Potrillo and Sierra de Las Uvas ranges and have never once taken these majestic mountains and canyons for granted.

When President Obama designated the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in March 2014 protecting those natural areas, the local community’s vision for its public land took a big step closer to becoming a reality. With the proclamation came the assurance that our incredible lands and wildlife would be here for future generations to enjoy. Now, Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are working to complete the goal envisioned by our community nearly a decade ago.

When the national monument was designated in 2014, our community understood that these lands deserved protection, not only for the sake of those who wish to visit them, but for the abundance of wildlife and vegetation that occupy them as well.

The monument and previous legislation was supported by Hispanic leaders, veterans, Native Americans, small business owners, faith leaders, conservationists, local elected officials, and sportsmen like me.

The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act would safeguard the wildest lands within the Organ Mountains- Desert Peaks National Monument. These areas provide critical habitat for pronghorn antelope, desert mule deer, javelina, and three species of quail. Wildlife needs unfragmented habitat in order to thrive, and the proposed wilderness areas within the bill will provide that.

While hunting is my most treasured pastime, it is not the only reason I support the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act. Outdoor recreation is an important part of our way of life in southern New Mexico. Even before Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks was designated a national monument, people came to the area to hike, camp, view wildlife, explore, ride horseback, bike, and hunt.

Now, with a star on the map, New Mexico’s newest national monument has proven to be an economic driver for the local communities. Las Cruces was recently included in Lonely Planet’s “Top10 Places to Visit,” thanks in large part to the national monument. Additionally, the town of Mesilla’s tax revenues have jumped over 20 percent and Las Cruces’ lodgers tax revenues are up since 2015. The new wilderness areas will only draw more visitors to experience nature at its finest, and the nearby towns will benefit.

Some of the most special places are within the wilderness study areas in the national monument. Among my favorites is the West Potrillo Mountains, which contain one of the largest relatively undisturbed stretches of Chihuahuan Desertlandscape in the Southwest. Also in the region is the volcanic shield of Aden Crater. Looking more like a Martian landscape, the lava field contains hundreds of cinder cones and large craters.

In addition to its natural splendor, the area is teaming with cultural and historical gems. This includes historic sites at Lookout and Massacre Peaks in the Sierra de Las Uvas, and the petroglyphs in Valles and Broad Canyons. The Robledo Mountains, named after a famous Spanish soldier Pedro Robledo, also housed both Billy the Kid and Geronimo in the mid-19th century.

Evidence of Native American habitation, as well as ties to Spanish and Mexican-American cultures, is also well documented among the trails and forts. When I go out on the land, I enjoy exploring the many significant archeological and historical sites that dot the area.

Yet these rugged mountains are deceptively fragile. Preserving the area as wilderness – the gold standard of protection – will help ensure that future generations may also hunt, hike, and explore.

New Mexico has a treasure chest of magnificent wild places. We are fortunate that Senators Udall and Heinrich have again introduced legislation to protect more of them. Keeping areas within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument as wild as possible is a gift to sportsmen todayand tomorrow.

John Cornell is president of the Doña Ana County Associated Sportsmen