February 07, 2018

Udall Testifies on Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act in Key Committee Hearing

WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, testified before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in support of his legislation to establish wilderness within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks (OMDP) National Monument, the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks Conservation Act, S. 441. The legislation, which is also cosponsored by U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), provides permanent protection for some of Southern New Mexico’s most iconic landscapes, strengthens border security, respects military needs and historic grazing and safeguards OMDP’s sensitive cultural, historical, and natural treasures for generations to come.

"Wilderness designation will enhance recreational opportunities in these pristine areas for hiking -- as well as preserve traditional hunting and grazing uses and protect sensitive archaeological sites from destruction,” Udall said. "National monument status brings important economic benefits as well. And Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is no exception. From 2015 to 2016, visitors to the monument more than doubled. Increased tourism means increased spending at local restaurants, hotels, outdoor businesses, and arts and crafts shops, leading to an increase in our tax base.”

"President Obama’s 2014 designation of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument had broad support in the local community and in New Mexico, and especially in Doña Ana County where the vast majority of the lands are located,” Udall continued. "And S. 441 – which complements the designation and gives permanent protection to some of New Mexico’s most special lands – has that same broad support."

A broad coalition of Hispanic leaders, veterans, Native Americans, sportsmen, small business owners, faith leaders, conservationists, local elected officials, and others have worked for nearly a decade to protect wilderness in Doña Ana County. Designating wilderness within the national monument will preserve New Mexico's outdoor heritage by ensuring that these public lands will remain open to hunting, outdoor recreation and grazing. The bill will provide gold-standard protection for the wildest places within the national monument.

Udall and former Senator Jeff Bingaman first introduced legislation to protect wilderness in Doña Ana County in 2009, and Udall and Heinrich introduced the legislation in the 112th, 113th, and 114th Congresses. In 2014, President Obama established the the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, based on legislation introduced by Udall and Heinrich. But only Congress has the authority to create wilderness, and this final step will ensure full protection for land within OMDP and the unconfined opportunities for recreation that wilderness offers.

This legislation reflects feedback from many individuals and groups over the years, including grazing permittees and private landowners within the proposed areas; electric, natural gas, and pipeline utilities; local governments and community leaders; local law enforcement agencies; sportsmen, heritage, veteran, conservation, and archaeological organizations; flood control and irrigation authorities; airport authorities; the New Mexico State Land Office; and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Border Patrol, and the Army.

By removing the current wilderness study area designation in 30,000 acres of the monument along the U.S.-Mexico border, the bill will help strengthen border security. In a letter to Udall, U.S. Customs and Border Protection indicated that the provisions of the bill would "significantly enhance the flexibility of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to operate in this border area.” In a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Sheriffs of Doña Ana and Luna Counties wrote that “the [Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks] monument designation has safeguarded our necessary law enforcement activities as well as our cultural and natural heritage.”

The Organ-Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument has contributed to significant economic growth in Doña Ana County. According to a poll from the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, 78 percent of Doña Ana County residents support the protection of wilderness within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

Below is Udall’s official testimony as prepared for delivery.

Thank you Chairman Lee and Senator Heinrich for the opportunity to provide a statement to this subcommittee in support of The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act, S. 441 and the permanent reauthorization of the 20 year old Rio Puerco Watershed Management Program, S. 2249.

I appreciate the administration’s support for the goals of both pieces of legislation. And I look forward to working with them to get them enacted.

I will quickly speak to the Rio Puerco Watershed management program. This is a successful collaboration that has won the EPA’s Environmental Excellence Award and the BLM’s Legacy of the Land Award. It stems erosion in what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers classifies as the most eroded watershed in the country.

I hope this committee will continue to support their outstanding work and reauthorize the program. I ask that my full statement on S. 2249 is added to the record.

Turning to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act, I would like to thank my cosponsor, Senator Heinrich, who is a valuable member of this committee. He and his staff did a lot of on-the-ground work along with my staff and me. Our goal was to craft consensus legislation that addresses all stakeholders’ needs and interests to the greatest extent possible. I firmly believe we’ve done that.

Protecting Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is a grassroots effort that began a decade ago. This community support led to the first congressional efforts – in 2009 -- when Senator Jeff Bingaman and I introduced legislation to create wilderness in portions of this area.

President Obama’s 2014 designation of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument had broad support in the local community and in New Mexico, and especially in Doña Ana County where the vast majority of the lands are located.

And S. 441 – which complements the designation and gives permanent protection to some of New Mexico’s most special lands – has that same broad support.

According to a 2016 poll, 78 percent of Doña Ana County voters support legislation making the Wilderness Study Areas in Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks permanent wilderness.

Wilderness designation will enhance recreational opportunities in these pristine areas for hiking, as well as preserve traditional hunting and grazing uses and protect sensitive archaeological sites from destruction.

National monument status brings important economic benefits as well. And Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is no exception. From 2015 to 2016, visitors to the monument more than doubled. Increased tourism means increased spending at local restaurants, hotels, outdoor businesses, and arts and crafts shops, leading to an increase in our tax base.

The legislation before you has been modified since the original 2009 bill to address concerns raised by stakeholders.

First, we worked closely with U.S. Border Patrol to ensure the bill would not interfere with their responsibilities. S. 441 releases 30,000 acres of existing Wilderness Study Area near the border to protect border security. It expands the buffer from the international border from one-third of a mile to five miles. The buffer would prohibit motorized off-road access by the general public for two miles. But Border Patrol and other law enforcement may patrol and construct communication and surveillance infrastructure.

The wilderness boundary excludes specific sites used by Border Patrol for its Mobile Surveillance System and a communications tower that is critical to closing radio cover gaps for the Doña Ana County Sheriff officers’ safety and communication effectiveness.

The bill gives Border Patrol and other law enforcement special access to an east-west route within the Potrillo Mountains wilderness to conduct border security operations. In addition, the bill reiterates that the Border Patrol can, in accordance with the Wilderness Act, enter these lands, as necessary, such as when they are in pursuit of a suspect.

Former Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Alan Bersin and Acting Commissioner Thomas Winkowski are on record that the bill’s provisions “would significantly enhance the flexibility of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to operate in this border area.”

I’d also like to offer for the record a joint letter from the Sheriffs of Doña Ana and Luna Counties. A small portion of the area is located within Luna County. These sheriffs wrote to Secretary Zinke last summer in support of keeping the national monument designation intact. They affirm that national monument status has not weakened their law enforcement authority.

Second, in accordance with discussions with the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Installations, Energy and Environment, S. 441 respects the Army’s preferences with respect to Fillmore Canyon -- much of which lies within the boundaries of Fort Bliss.

In previous versions of this bill, Fillmore Canyon was to be transferred to the Bureau of Land Management. But in this bill, Fillmore Canyon would stay with Fort Bliss unless the Secretary of the Army determines otherwise.

Third, S. 441 not affect or disturb the rights of existing grazing permittees. The bill requires BLM to allow existing grazing in the new wilderness areas. Under S. 441, BLM has authority to allow permittees to use motorized vehicles and equipment for maintenance and existing roads leading to wells, troughs, and corrals remain open to motorized vehicles, as is allowed under the Wilderness Act.

If there are other modifications necessary for border security, law enforcement, or other issues, I stand ready to discuss and work through those issues with my colleagues and the administration.

It is critical, however, for my state that the areas designated in this bill receive protection as wilderness and we resolve these long-standing issues.

Thank you again Senator Lee and Senator Heinrich for the opportunity to come before this subcommittee.