One hundred fifteen years ago Tuesday, June 8, then-President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Antiquities Act, allowing himself and future presidents to permanently protect certain unique and special public landscapes where we hunt, fish, farm, ranch, connect with and honor our land-based culture and heritage.
Baseless arguments have sometimes been invented against national monuments. Opponents try to leverage the notion that national monuments curb local economies, prohibit public input, or strip away the land from grazers, farmers and hunters. The exact opposite is true. These designations actually permanently codify traditional land uses, guaranteeing these uses remain on the landscape for future generations.
National monuments — like the Río Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments — have elevated and preserved New Mexico’s remarkable cultural diversity and core traditional land-use values in places like Taos and Doña Ana County.
Pueblos and tribes, local Hispanic communities and traditional land users have historically advocated for conservation, and have always been (and always should be) at the planning table during national monument discussions.
Thanks to the Antiquities Act, community-driven monument designations are a unique opportunity for locals to have a say in how their landscapes should be both permanently protected and carefully managed in the long term. Local input helps to elevate protection and community land use while also crafting a long-term stewardship plan with federal agencies (like the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service) that manage these places. Carefully addressing and planning for overuse and excessive visitation from nonlocals is also a critical part of the planning process.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “each national monument planning process is different, with many opportunities for public input along the way.” Furthermore, our two newest New Mexico monuments continue to provide space for traditional uses such as grazing, hunting, and herb, piñon and wood gathering. These are the practices that preserve our values into posterity and which would be marginalized without the proper protection of land.
Johnny Mestas, a grazing lessee within the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, explained it best when he said, “If the land is protected in perpetuity, then so are our rights as traditional users. These lands serve the hunter and the environmentalist, the cattle grower and the consumer. These protected lands provide an economic engine for communities surrounding them.”
A well-drafted national monument declaration is driven by and takes into account local voices to ensure balanced uses while protecting cultural, historical and sacred areas, maintaining traditional uses and ensuring the integrity of critical wildlife habitat.
Let’s celebrate the continued existence of our national monuments and find the courage to fight for more protections that not only preserve our land, but also our culture, values and the rich history of New Mexico.