May 19, 2011

Bingaman & Udall Renew Effort to Protect Organ Mountains While Improving Border Security

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall today renewed their push to protect the scenic landscape of the Organ Mountains in Doña Ana County.

The legislation, called the Organ Mountains - Doña Ana County Conservation and Protection Act (S. 1024), creates wilderness and conservation areas in the county that provide for continued public use while protecting the granite peaks of the Organ Mountains and the volcanic cinder cones of the Potrillo Mountains, among other public lands in the county. A map of the proposal can be found here.

Much of the area has been managed as a "Wilderness Study Area" since the 1980s when the Reagan administration first set it aside for protected status. It was later recommended by the George H.W. Bush administration and then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan to be elevated to full wilderness status.

The legislation would bring President Bush's recommendations to fruition by creating 241,000 acres of wilderness and 100,000 acres of National Conservation Area (NCA). These areas would be managed in ways that protect the landscape from development while preserving current uses - such as hunting and grazing.

As before, the bill also contains the modifications developed with the Border Patrol to enhance the flexibility of Border Patrol and law enforcement to operate in the border area above and beyond existing law. Because of the way the West Potrillos Wilderness Study Area boundary was originally drawn by the Reagan Administration, the Border Patrol has a buffer of only 1/3 of a mile from the international border and is currently limited in its ability to conduct routine vehicle patrols north of Highway 9.

The bill introduced today expands this buffer to a total of 5 miles - 3 miles of non-wilderness buffer area and an additional 2-mile "Restricted Use Area." This area would prohibit motorized access by the general public, but it will permit the Border Patrol to conduct routine patrols and construct communication and surveillance infrastructure as it would on regular multiple-use land. The bill proposes to un-designate over 30,000 acres of land currently designated as wilderness study area. Here is a link to maps that show the current Wilderness Study Area as compared to the new proposal.

In addition to the nearly five mile buffer, the new proposal also provides an east-west route for Border Patrol to travel between the Potrillo Mountains Wilderness. And it underscores current law by expressly stating that the wilderness designation does not affect Border Patrol's ability to conduct overflights above the wilderness areas or other border security activities in the wilderness areas, including the use of motorized vehicles while in pursuit of a suspect. The commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who oversees Border Patrol, wrote a letter last year in strong support of the strengthened proposal. In the letter Commissioner Alan Bersin states that the bill, as modified, "would significantly enhance the flexibility of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to operate in this border area."

"While illegal activity is very low near the Potrillo Mountains because of the rough terrain, I remain convinced the 1/3-mile buffer is insufficient for the Border Patrol and law enforcement to adequately operate in this border area," Bingaman said. "This bill not only enhances our border security flexibility in the area, it also benefits the quality of life in the region by protecting its iconic landscapes."

"This bill strikes the right balance between securing our border and protecting treasured landscapes like the Organ Mountains for generations to come," Udall said. "I'm proud to once again join with Senator Bingaman in introducing this important legislation."

In the 111th Congress, the bill received a hearing before Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee both in Washington D.C. as well as at a field hearing in Las Cruces. The measure was then approved unanimously last year by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but was not considered by the full Senate in the 111th Congress.

Introducing the bill today will begin the process anew in the 112th Congress.