Sierra Club stories from the front lines

Sierra & Tierra: A Monumental Symphony

By Javier Sierra  

When President Obama signed the proclamation to designate the Organ Mountains/Desert Peaks National Monument in May, it was the last stitch of a tapestry to weave together several natural sites of extraordinary beauty and cultural significance.

The monument, located in the Doña Ana County in southern New Mexico, is loaded with enchantment and historic significance, particularly for the Latino community. Just notice the Spanish names of many of these places: Sierra de las Uvas, the Robledo, Potrillo and Doña Ana mountains, and the very Sierra de los Organos (Organ Mountains), named after its resemblance to the musical instrument. Let’s call it a monumental symphony.  

068-Organs-Barrel-Cacti-by-Lisa-Mandelkern
The Organ Mountains, the centerpiece of the monument

For centuries, the ragged peaks of the Organs for centuries witnessed the flow of settlers traveling from Mexico to Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos on the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. In the Broad Canyon there is an abundance of petroglyphs, testament of ancestral native cultures. And in the Robledo Mountains dinosaur footprints were petrified millions of years ago.

These natural treasures have been protected in large part due to the activism of Latino leaders.

“Latinos have been working to protect these lands for well over a decade,” says Michael Casaus, New Mexico State Director of the Wilderness Society. “From the very beginning Latino leaders took an active role in shaping the campaign and determining which lands should be protected. Without the contribution of Latino leaders and conservationists the designation would not have happened.”

This Latino activism also ensured that the traditional uses of the land would be permitted in the monument, such as grazing, water rights, hunting, fishing and recreational activities.

“This garnered the support of the local residents, who are mostly Latinos, and ensured that these lands will not be sold to private owners to reduce the national deficit or be turned into mining operations,” says Casaus.

The monument is also getting Latino youth interested in their history and culture and encouraging them to stay in school.

“I lead these kids into the monument to help me compile its cultural inventory,” says Angel Peña, cultural resources specialist of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “We hike around the lands looking for remnants of Hispanics coming through in the 1580’s, we have found evidence of the Camino Real, as well as numerous petroglyphs and other archeological resources.”

The monument has literally changed the lives of these kids.

“Each expedition is a trek of discovery of their culture and past,” says Peña. “They now have a purpose in life. Many of them are interpretative rangers of the Bureau of Land Management. Here there are good jobs that will fill them with pride and satisfaction.”

Unfortunately, there are representatives in Washington, DC, who are adding a sour note to the music. Reps. Rob Bishop (R-UT), Steven Pearce (R-NM) and Jeff Duncan (R-SC) insist that the monument, located by the Mexican border, poses a threat to national security because it creates a gateway for illegal activity, and impedes open access to the Border Patrol and other law enforcement bodies.

Several civic groups, on the other hand, called the representatives’ claims “false” alleging data and statements by the US Customs and Border Security that prove the opposite. The faith-based group NM CAFé, for instance, labeled the statements as “a waste of time and taxpayers’ money” and urged these congressmen to dedicate their time to find “real solutions to the border problems,” including supporting immigration reform.

The establishment of the monument is a brilliant idea. Too bad there are those willing to play out of tune in this monumental symphony.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC