By Diana M. Alba-Soular | Las Cruces Sun-News
May 21, 2019

LAS CRUCES - Tuesday will mark the fifth anniversary of the creation of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument by former U.S. President Barack Obama.

It's about the same amount of time the Luchador Food Truck, founded by longtime Las Crucen Ivan Saenz, has existed. For Luchador, which serves up tacos, tortas and burgers, the monument has become a source of business in the years since.

The Organ Mountains have always been a backdrop to Saenz's life in Las Cruces. He'd end up at Dripping Springs or Aguirre Spring for family outings and school field trips growing up. But he said he took them for granted in a way — until the creation of the national monument, which highlighted the area's uniqueness as a natural resource.

"That really opened my eyes as to how lucky we are," he said.

Created with a pen

Signed into existence in a unilateral move by Obama in 2014, the OMDP monument encompasses nearly a half million acres of public lands in four separate areas of Doña Ana County.

There was no shortage of debate in the years leading up to the monument's creation about whether to put in place — and if so, to what degree — federal protection for hundreds of thousands of acres of federal lands. And that debate continued — mainly split down partisan lines — even in the years after the monument's creation.

Since its establishment, visitation to the monument has risen sharply, according to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. And monument proponents are quick to point out this has economic benefits to the community.

Since 2014, perhaps the biggest development in connection to the monument was what appeared to be an attempt by President Trump, soon after taking office, to scale back monuments created by previous presidents. OMDP national monument was on his radar, prompting a visit to Las Cruces by then-Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke. But in the end, OMDP was left intact. And — in a curious turn of events — Trump, earlier this year, ended up granting an even stricter level of protection to roughly half the acreage in the national monument. He signed a massive public lands bill that included a provision forming 241,554 acres of federally designated wilderness in Doña Ana County.

Other changes have been taking place, as well. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has boosted the number of expert talks and guided hikes available to the public. However, the agency hasn't yet begun an important step: the long-term planning process that will guide management of the monument for years to come.

Finding a niche

After working in the local restaurant industry for years, Saenz, the owner of Luchador Food Truck, graduated from New Mexico State University in 2008 with a degree in hotel, tourism and restaurant management. He then became food and beverage manager for Hotel Encanto before founding his food truck.

And after launching the eatery on wheels, Saenz began fielding requests to serve food at monument events. All based from his food truck, he's served food at weddings, a marathon, private picnics and public events, like a monument celebration in March featuring a visit by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Saenz has served items from his normal menu and five-course catered dinners. While monument-related work is not the sole sustenance of his business, it's becoming a bigger aspect.

"This year alone we've already done three events up there," he told the Sun-News in an interview last week.

In catering food at remote areas, such as the monument, Saenz acknowledges he does have a certain market niche.

"We work to our strengths, and one of our strengths is being flexible and mobile," he said.

A growing buzz

There has been growing buzz around the monument. It's gained mentioned in some publications with national reach. Some recreational endeavors — such as the Monumental Loop, a figure-eight shaped trail designed to give bicyclists and hikers a sense of the whole monument — have popped up. And the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the monument and its affiliated wilderness areas, says visitation is increasing.

From October 2014 to September 2015, some 177,400 people visited sites in the OMDP monument, according to the agency. In the 2018-19 year, that had more than doubled, with 415,690 people visiting.

While the BLM does keep these visitation numbers, it also acknowledges there's room for improved accuracy. At issue is that many of the areas in the monument don't require visitors to log in or get a permit or pay a fee. So the BLM is able to track sites such as Dripping Springs and Aguirre Spring — both of which require a per-vehicle fee — with relative precision. But for areas outside that, it relies upon tracking educational and recreational events, as well as techniques such as traffic counters.

Patrick Nolan is executive director of the Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, a nonprofit that formed in 2011 with a focus on the monument.

"We've seen visitation — and the data's not super-accurate — but best estimates show visitation to the monument doubling since its designation," he said Friday. "That amount has increased every year consistently. We're seeing a lot of people visiting from other places, out of state, and businesses really using the monument as a way to bring business and people here to Las Cruces. Organ Mountain Outfitters is one that I think best exemplifies that."

Organ Mountain Outfitters is a retailer in downtown Las Cruces that sells a range of Organ Mountains-themed clothing, like T-shirts and hats. A lot of its marketing is Organ Mountain-themed. The Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, a staunch supporter of OMDP, has compiled a kit to give businesses a primer about how to incorporate the monument into its marketing and products.

Visitation to Dripping Springs and Aguirre Spring recreation sites, which is tracked by a per-vehicle permit, has increased since the monument's creation, though to varying degrees, according to BLM numbers. The number of visitors to Aguirre Springs, on the east side of the Organ Mountains, roughly doubled, to about 41,700 total, from 2012-13 to the 2017-18 federal fiscal year. Dripping Springs, on the west side of the Organ Mountains, saw a more modest increase — of about 2,200 visitors per year — from 2012-13 to 2017-18.

As far as determining how many of these visitors are from Las Cruces, compared to locations outside the county, the BLM doesn't immediately have that data available but is interested in that analysis, said Bill Childress, manager for the BLM's Las Cruces District Office.

"That's something we'd want to look at and get a better handle on at those two sites," he said.

Childress agreed the formal designation of the monument — as well as a road that was paved to make it easier for visitors to reach Dripping Springs from Las Cruces — have helped to increase visitation to the monument.

During a recent event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, which is northwest of Las Cruces but separate from OMDP, Childress met a man who by chance happened to be visiting the area for a specific reason.

"His goal was to visit every national park and every national monument," he said.

Outdoor recreation a big economy

In 2016, outdoor recreation accounted for about $414 billion of the nation's gross domestic product. The biggest components of that were in the entertainment/ food services/ hotel accommodations and retail trade categories.

In New Mexico, outdoor recreation has about a $10 billion per year economic impact, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

Udall, during a visit in March to La Cueva Picnic Area at the base of the Organ Mountains, said out-of-area visitors to the monument — and its more recently established wilderness areas — will boost the economy.

"People are spending a lot on outdoor recreation," he said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who touted promoting the state's outdoor recreation economy during her campaign last year, was expected to attend a Saturday night celebration and Friends of the OMDP fundraiser in Las Cruces centered upon the monument's five-year anniversary.

While OMDP's natural areas in Doña Ana County have always been around for people to possibly visit, monument proponents say the added monikers of "national monument" and "wilderness" raise their public profile to a level not seen previously.

Founding a trail

A decade ago, Matt Mason and his wife moved to Las Cruces; debate was still raging about the public lands' future. Mason, who wanted to see more lands protections, first had the idea to create a bike and hiking trail that, if followed, would give people a look at each of the four major areas of the county that at the time were proposed for stricter protections. And he hoped that, if people saw the areas, they'd be more inclined to support legislative proposals. He started hiking various areas, but it took several years for his idea to take shape.

"It was 2016 when we started making attempts to ride the whole thing," he said. "It was hard — harder than we thought."

The route had to be modified slightly when wilderness was created this year because mechanized travel, including bicycles, isn't allowed in official wilderness. But the trail currently borders nine of the 10 wilderness areas. It consists of two large loops, one to the north of Las Cruces reaching up to Hatch and another to the south stretching to Vinton, Texas. The idea all along was for trail riders and hikers to see the monument, but also visit cities and towns along the way to rest and resupply. Because of that, Mason said, there's an economic development component. For instance, part of the route passes by Spotted Dog Brewery in Las Cruces.

Creating the loop was a personal undertaking by Mason, and he doesn't earn any money on the project or have a budget to do things like promote it. But he said people from other places have been finding out about the loop — mainly from — and visiting Doña Ana County to traverse it.

Mason recalled a couple from Canada who got engaged while traversing the loop near Hatch. Last year, a runner completed the more-than-300-mile route. Mason said some of the stretches are open to vehicles, too. He's been hearing about repeat visitors from out of town. And when it comes to people who've finished the whole loop, "there's more people who've finished from Alaska, in fact, than from Las Cruces.

"I'd say we're getting 100 riders a year, maybe, who come ride the whole thing," he said. "The way the locals have embraced the out-of-towners is what makes it so special. It's been neat to see the response the community has had."

Mason said he'd eventually like to see the BLM formalize the loop in its own management of the monument, possibly by adding signage and designated camping spots. And the agency could set up a permit system. These steps could help mitigate the impact to the desert environment from visitors, he said.

Starting a long-range plan

A long-range planning process that will guide management of the entire half-million acre monument has yet to get underway. Childress, the BLM district manager, said some steps that are precursors to the development of what's known as a resource management plan are in progress. Developing the plan will require a budget authorization from Congress, which hasn't happened yet.

Nolan said he's hopeful that planning process will get underway, but "these things take time.

"We would like to see an effort to really figure out how we're going to manage this place for the foreseeable future," he said.

Part of that plan, known as an RMP, will include an economic impact analysis of various proposals for managing the monument. The BLM doesn't currently have an economic impact study pertaining to OMDP monument. Another aspect of the agency's efforts will include a travel management plan — which will address roads within the monument. That plan could be joined with the overall RMP, Childress said, or it could stay separate.

Childress said the agency has continued to field concerns from people, such as ranchers, who've expressed concerns about the monument. But he said grazing, which is permitted in the national monument, has continued.

"We're taking it upon ourselves to communicate and continue to address those concerns," he said.

Boosting OMDP programming

Even without the resource management plan in place, the BLM — along with groups that use the monument lands — have taken some steps to boost awareness about OMDP, such as by such as installing new signs and increasing programming.

"One of the best things we've been able to do is foster good working relationships with some of our partnerships — the Southern New Mexico Trail Alliance, the Friends of Organ Mountains Desert Peaks and the Four Wheel Drive Club," Childress said.

Childress credited the BLM's staff and range of experts who've made a "concerted effort" to host an event each weekend within the monument. Paleontologists, archaeologists, biologists and rangers host talks, hikes and other programs.

The Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks has an effort underway to help youth from low-income families visit natural areas in the monument, an opportunity they might not otherwise have. Also, for several years, the organization has offered an artist-in-residence program in conjunction with the BLM that allows artists to live in the monument while creating OMDP-inspired works. Nolan said the organization is looking next to develop a docent program with the BLM, in which volunteers are trained by experts to give interpretive talks.

And for the past two years, the Monuments to Main Street program has planned events to showcase OMDP each weekend in September. A third year of programming is expected in 2019.

Continued growth expected

Monument supporters said they expect visitation to OMDP to continue growing. And, while that can be a positive for local tourism, it also carries a potential risk.

"How do we manage an influx of visitors to these really delicate and sensitive places?" Nolan said. "We want people to come to these places, but we want them to enjoy them responsibly to ensure they are as pristine as we can possibly keep them for future generations. I think that's the issue we'll be looking at in the next five years."

For monument proponents, one of the biggest successes is that OMDP still exists after what seemed to be an attempt by the Trump administration to downsize it. Nolan said that was a "testament to our community and the work that was put in to establish this monument.

"I think we really stood tall and sent a strong message to D.C. that people want to see this place to continue to be protected," he said.

For Saenz, owner of the Luchador Food Truck, the monument designation is one of several happenings locally that are putting Las Cruces on the map. Recently, Virgin Galactic announced it's moving its operations to southern New Mexico for the start of space tourism flights.

"I think it's all kind of come together," he said. "It feels like we're going to be the whole package."

This article originally appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News.