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Hispanic Leaders Call for Protection of NM Public Lands

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January 19, 2012

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Hispanic leaders in southwestern New Mexico are calling on Congress and the president to permanently protect the Organ Mountains and nearby Desert Peaks region. Hundreds of letters from Latinos are being sent to Washington, D.C., asking for greater protections for public lands.

John Muñoz, president of the Hispano Chamber of Commerce de Las Cruces, says the area is culturally important - particularly to Hispanics and Native Americans.

"The Camino Real or the Butterfield Trail, those are key as far as settlers in early times. For the Native Americans, some of these lands are mystical, and have a religious and cultural connection."

The Organ Mountains-Doña Ana County Conservation and Protection Act (S 1024) is sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall. It isn't the first time the two New Mexico lawmakers have tried to protect nearly 400,000 acres of public land in Doña Ana County.

Muñoz also sees protecting these lands as an opportunity for a long-term economic boost for Hispanic workers and business owners struggling to make a living in the area. It has tourism and research value as home to thousands of ancient Native American petroglyphs and pictographs on canyon walls.

Some of these lands have received interim protection as Wilderness Study Areas, but Muñoz says others are vulnerable to a variety of threats.

"If we leave these lands open and not protected, leave them open to development, it would mar the land that we have. It's like taking a classic painting and coming to it with crayons and making a mess of it."

Communities in Action and Faith (CAFÉ) Executive Director Sarah Nolan says the area that her faith-based community organization is seeking to protect offers something unique.

"The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region ranges from 9,000-foot mountains to volcanic craters. Some things we are used to seeing are desert mule deer and three different species of quail, and we have javelina come through New Mexico here."

Passage of the bill would mean more than 271,000 acres designated as wilderness, and the creation of a National Conservation Area of over 100,000 acres around the Organ and Doña Ana Mountains and parts of Broad Canyon.

Beth Blakeman, Public News Service - NM