ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — After a nearly 10-year campaign by environmentalists, hunters and tourism officials to gain wilderness protection for the Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks in southern New Mexico, the White House said Monday that President Barack Obama will declare almost 500,000 acres of mountain ranges above the Chihuahan Desert a national monument this week.
Supporters hailed Obama's announcement, planned for Wednesday, as crucial for preserving important historical, cultural and nature sites while creating new jobs and generating millions of dollars annually in new revenue from tourism and outdoor recreation.
Opponents, however, fear the designation will interfere with rancher's grazing rights and result in road closures that will impede law enforcement access, making it easier for Mexican drug cartels to open new smuggling routes across the border.
"The drug cartels in Juarez are just happier than all get-out because this gives them 500,000 free acres they will be able to drive through," said Jack LeVick, executive director of the New Mexico Sheriffs' Association.
New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, had proposed legislation to protect the region that includes popular hunting areas and features steep rock outcroppings, petroglyphs, ancient lava flows and sites such as Billy the Kid's Outlaw Rock, Geromino's Cave and the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail. Republican Rep. Steve Pearce, whose congressional district covers the region, meanwhile, had proposed the designation for just 55,000 acres.
The president will take the action using his authority under the Antiquities Act, administration officials said.
Pearce called the president's plan "misguided" and a "land grab" intended to "derail any attempt to form a consensus and do what local people want."
National environmental and conservation groups, however, celebrated a hard-fought victory.
"I grew up hiking and exploring these public lands, and this new monument status preserves the outdoor heritage of the area and ensures continued access for hunting, grazing and outdoor recreation," Michael Casaus, New Mexico director of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement.
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