Southern New Mexicans are caught in a debate over preserving a stretch of borderland as a national monument. The state’s two Senators and a Representative are pushing separate bills that set different boundaries for the monument. One of the issues at stake is border security.
The land that stretches south from Interstate 10 outside the city of Las Cruces is a desolate expanse of desert that from a distance looks unremarkable. But those who know the land also know its hidden treasures.
"It seems every time we come we find either a new petroglyph or a new ceramic tide or a cool new arrowhead," said Angel Peña, a graduate student at New Mexico State University.
On a recent afternoon Peña prances across a mini rock mountain known as Providence Cone. He comes here often to do research for his master's thesis, a study of the ancient pottery typical of this region.
Providence Cone is littered with chiseled images of lizards, snakes and four-legged fish. It was the site of a settlement dating back some 1,400 years.
"In the morning right when the sun isn't directly over here, these petroglyphs shine like they're brand new, like they were carved yesterday," Peña said.
This site is within the boundaries of a proposed national monument that would be called Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. It would include four separate chunks of land within Doña Ana County that together total 500,000 acres. Part of the land reaches down to the Mexican border. The details are outlined in a bill co-sponsored by Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich.
"You have these incredible landscapes and mountains…that have some really important wildlife habitat for southern New Mexico as well as a cultural tapestry, a story of who we are as a country," said Heinrich.
The most identifiable landmark is the craggy Organ Mountain range, which towers above the city of Las Cruces like the pipes of its namesake instrument. West of those mountains, across the Rio Grande River, are sections of land that travel across time. There are volcanic craters and ancient animal tracks. There are battle scars from Apache raids and World War II aerial target sites.
"One of the great things about New Mexico is we have this incredible history of conservation," Heinrich said. "We have 68,000 New Mexico jobs that are directly tied to public lands, from outfitter guides to jobs in tourism and many other facets."
But local rancher Dudley Williams sees things differently. He lives within the proposed monument boundaries north of the border where he leases federal land for his cattle. When he first moved to New Mexico, he was blunt with his real estate agent.
"I said, 'I don't want any rivers, I don't want any trees and I don't want any scenic boulders. I want cattle grazing land,'" Williams said.
Over the years Williams said he’s seen evidence of illegal smuggling on his land, including bundles of drugs. He fears a national monument designation would attract more illicit traffic.
"I don't go out of the house without a pistol, even to go over to feed the horses or walk the dog," he said.
Even so, U.S. Border Patrol statistics show that in recent years New Mexico has among the lowest apprehension rates in the southern border.
But that’s of no comfort to local law enforcement. They fear national monument status may reduce their access to the area.
“The types of crimes that we’ve see were homicide victims to stolen vehicles, narcotics smuggling, human smuggling, weapons smuggling," said Capt. Manion Long of the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Department. "Our concern is if we're not allowed to provide that basic type of patrol then these instances will become more frequent."
As written, the Senate bill specifically states law enforcement will have access inside the monument, even within designated wilderness areas. But Long remains wary of those promises. The sheriff's department supports an alternative bill filed by New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce which excludes borderlands from the proposed monument.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in neighboring Arizona, is an existing park located along the Mexican border. Parts of it are closed due to the amount of illegal traffic that comes through. Visitors can still request to tour the closed sections, but must be accompanied by law enforcement.
Sue Walter, public information officer at the park, said both Border Patrol and local law enforcement have full access to the monument land.
"There have been no negative encounters between visitors and the illegal traffic," she said. "We are slowly opening the closed sections back up again."
Back in Las Cruces, at a local coffee shop, engineer David Soules sat sipping his favorite brew. He's been a lifelong hiker and hunter in Southern New Mexico and supports including the borderlands in a national monument proposal. He said it's area rich with wildlife and history.
"When I joined the Boy Scouts, the first camping that I did was in these areas," Soules said. "Now I'll do some star gazing and take a telescope and maybe see the moons of Jupiter the rings of Saturn.”
Soules said the beauty and character of the Southwest is inextricably tied to these wide open spaces.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to reflect the accurate viewpoint of rancher Dudley Williams.
Updated 1/14/2014 at 3:50 p.m.