Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Tuesday he does not recommend cutting the size of two national monuments in New Mexico following a controversial review of federal lands.
"My recommendation was to make no changes," Zinke told reporters on a conference call.
But Zinke is suggesting that President Donald Trump change the proclamations establishing the Rio Grande del Norte and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments, potentially modifying protections that Barack Obama conferred on the iconic landscapes.
The recommendations follow a review Trump ordered of about two dozen national monuments around the country.
Conservatives, particularly in the West, cheered the review, saying the federal government had overreached its authority in bestowing protections on public lands.
But conservationists countered that the Trump administration would use the review to open swathes of land for oil and gas production, mining, logging and other industry.
The review included the two monuments in New Mexico created in 2013 and 2014, respectively, by Obama.
The Río Grande del Norte National Monument stretches across 242,500 acres of rugged but scenic terrain in Taos County. The monument includes the Río Grande from around Pilar to the Colorado state line and spreads west across a high desert landscape defined by volcanic peaks.
The monument has won support from a wide range of residents, from some land grant heirs to rafting guides, Taos Pueblo leaders to local government officials.
The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument spans 496,330 acres of Doña Ana County, stretching from the iconic rock spires that define the Las Cruces skyline out west across the Chihuahua Desert.
Advocates for the monument argue the land tells the story of New Mexico.
Once crisscrossed by the Butterfield stagecoach route and known as a hideout for the likes of Geronimo and Billy the Kid, the monument also includes archaeological sites that reflect more than 10,000 years of human history.
Ranchers, though, have raised concerns that monument status might interfere with their ability to earn a living on the land. And Republican Congressman Steve Pearce of Hobbs has suggested a smaller footprint for the monument, about one-tenth its current size.
Referring to those concerns, Zinke told reporters: "The recommendations are to ensure traditional grazing."
Zinke also said he wants an assessment of how monument status might affect Border Patrol operations in the area as well as hunting.
The secretary conceded there is no indication hunting has been affected by the monument designation.
For more reporting on the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, see the Dec. 7 edition of The Taos News.