Trump’s Attacks on Public Lands Could Help the Democrats in These States

Races in New Mexico, Montana, and Utah all of a sudden look competitive.

This story is a Climate Desk collaboration between Mother Jones and High Country News.

Walk through the Las Cruces farmers market on a sunny Saturday morning, and it soon becomes obvious that residents are really proud of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Its granite pinnacles dominate the landscape surrounding this town of a little over 100,000 people. Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks (OMDP) stickers and posters are taped up on storefront windows, customers clad in Organ Mountains Outfitters T-shirts stand at the local farmers market weighing their produce. The local coffee shop features bags of its specialty blend OMDP coffee. Chris Lang, the owner of Organ Mountain Outfitters, sees the local support of the monument, which includes five mountain ranges and archaeologically rich canyons, as analogous to the pride fans have for their favorite sports teams. MaryAnn Hendrickson, who has lived in Las Cruces for several years, said simply, “They are dramatic and they are beautiful.”

These businesses illustrate the economic impact OMDP has had on the region since then-President Barack Obama designated it an official national monument in 2014.  Between 2015 and 2016, an additional 86,000 tourists visited the monument—an increase of 102 percent from the previous year. Their presence translates into big dollars for the local economy. An estimated $9.9 billion a year is spent on New Mexico’s outdoor recreation each year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke downplayed the amount of local support for national monuments in a leaked memorandum to President Donald Trump, which suggested that tourism revenue was not as high as some advocates had claimed.

 

So, last year when Zinke indicated he might reduce its size, and Trump included OMDP on a list of 27 monuments put under review in April 2017, residents worried about what would happen. Was it possible that administration officials would allow drilling or mining across its nearly 500,000 acres of land? During a two-day visit to OMDP last July, Zinke “flew over the national monument in a helicopter” and met with ranchers and other monument stakeholders, the Las Cruces-Sun News reported. In “thousands” of emails from residents, Zinke’s office received an overwhelming message, said Rep. Bill McCamley (D), who lives in Las Cruces: “There was just zero want from anybody to shrink the thing.” OMDP was ultimately left out of any of the proposed changes.

Voters in the West have always cared about the fate of their public lands, but this year is different. The Trump administration’s efforts to slash the size of national monuments, a historically unprecedented move, is bringing the issue into the national spotlight—and square in the minds of Westerners ahead of the midterms, said Peter Maysmith, senior vice president of campaigns for the League of Conservation Voters.

Apart from the potential environmental impact of opening up these lands to development, the economic benefits public lands offer local communities has made this issue central in key congressional races in New Mexico, Montana, and Utah. In New Mexico, for instance, more than 80 percent of voters polled by the Center for Western Priorities considered “public lands, parks and wildlife issues” an important issue in the midterms.

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