U.S. Presidents have enjoyed and successfully implemented the privilege of designating national monuments for more than 100 years. To date, 15 presidents on both sides of the aisle have used their authority under the Antiquities Act, granted to the president by Congress, to protect scenic wonders and historic sites like the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty — places that have become symbols of America’s beauty and freedom around the world.
Most recently, President Barack Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. I added my name, along with 70 other retired military leaders, to a letter to President Obama, thanking him for his efforts to establish this new monument. These 496,000 acres of public lands in Southern New Mexico have significant American history and cultural and economic importance to the local community. While the excitement surrounding the new monument is palpable in southern New Mexico, some detractors in Congress are spreading false information and unfounded claims in an attempt to attack this designation. They claim that the monument will lead to border security issues and more crime.
On Thursday July 10 the House Committee on Homeland Security held a subcommittee hearing to discuss the “implications for border security” presented by designating the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks a national monument. Some members of the subcommittee argued the monument designation will curtail border enforcement. It seems opponents of this designation in Congress are so determined to attack this monument that they are spending valuable congressional legislative time to discuss claims that have already been refuted by multiple security experts and have no basis in fact.
Retired generals with 2,300 combined years of military service to this nation, unequivocally state that this line of pursuit to investigate border issues at the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is just plain wrong-headed. I question the wisdom of any further time on the matter spent by Congress for numerous reasons.
The agency charged with protecting the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said, “this designation will in no way limit our ability to perform our important border security mission, and in fact provides important flexibility as we work to meet this ongoing priority,” in a statement issued when the designation was announced.
In fact, the monument proclamation signed by Obama clearly states, “Nothing in this proclamation shall be deemed to affect the provisions of the 2006 Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding ‘Cooperative National Security and Counterterrorism Efforts on Federal Lands along the United States’ Borders.’”
Additionally, law enforcement officials such as Sheriff Raymond Cobos of Luna County, New Mexico, (located next to the U.S. border) have already stated publicly that the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument will not create security issues or hinder law enforcement personnel from doing their jobs.
This attempt to attack the widely celebrated Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is in line with other recent attempts by the House to undermine the president’s ability to protect our nation’s rich heritage. A bill passed earlier this year and another introduced in the last few days would impose additional hurdles for any monument designations made by Obama, or any president.
On June 26, such a bill was introduced that would limit the president’s authority to designate new national monuments, and was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources. Essentially the bill would require both congressional approval and NEPA review of all national monument designations by the President. This is a real and potent attempt to begin nothing less than the dismantling of President Theodore Roosevelt’s great conservation legacy, and is a direct attack on one of our best tools to preserve America’s heritage and the story of our nation.
The cadre of distinguished retired military leaders who thanked the president for his Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks action urge members of Congress to reject any efforts whatsoever to curtail the ability of communities to ensure their public lands and our American history and heritage is protected.
As a former commander of Fort Huachuca, a large military installation within sight of these beautiful peaks, and the father of two daughters that each spent four years attending New Mexico State University in nearly Las Cruces, the area is particularly important to me personally. Nevertheless, you may be asking yourself, why would so many other retired generals care so much about new national monuments?
We care because we believe that our military is not only charged with defending American values, it is also charged with defending the sacred public lands that help make up the American character. In this sense, the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is filled with such character.
It has been at the crossroads of America even before the United States existed. From American Indian pathways and petroglyphs, to the Camino Real and the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail, the area has been the site of peoples passing through for thousands of years. And when peoples pass through a place, they leave behind a treasure trove of history and culture.
In the mid-20th century, the region now protected was also a critical training ground for U.S. pilots. To this day, you can visit the Deming Aerial Bombing Targets within the new monument, where Army Air Corps pilots trained during World War II using Norden bombsight technology. These bombing targets remain as tributes to the sacrifices made by the military personnel of previous generations.
Ultimately there is no good reason for anyone to be negative about this new national monument. Studies have repeatedly shown that national monument designations lead to economic stimulation in nearby communities. But for former military personnel like us, what is most exciting about the new national monument is the preservation of recreation, historical, and cultural resources that our servicemen and women have long fought to protect.
And for that we should all be grateful.
Retired Lieutenant General Clarence “Mac” McKnight served 35 years in the U.S. Army, including a tour as Commanding General of Fort Huachuca in southeast Arizona, about 15 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.