In this reported piece, writer Emily Hernandez traveled to New Mexico with Hispanic Access Foundation to the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument, a national monument currently under review by the Trump administration as part of the president's September executive order.
The jutting crowns of the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument rise up from the landscape just outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. At night, the mountains are frighteningly imposing with their silhouettes towering over the Chihuahuan Desert. The monument is made up of four independent pieces, which all together equal 496,330 acres of public land. And all of it was put at risk by President Donald Trump in April, along with 27 other spaces, when he used an executive order to call for a review of national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act of 1906.
The president called these monuments a “massive federal land grab,” claiming that their existence robs states of land access. (Land can only be included in a national monument if it is already federal land and rights to the land were grandfathered in prior to its designation.) In August, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made similar comments.
Resistance to the executive order came quickly. Groups like Hispanic Access Foundation, a nonprofit focused on promoting civic engagement among Latinx people, are working actively to preserve these monuments and the land they protect. That includes visiting places like the Organ Mountains, though the group found that Latinx people are less likely to visit public lands than their Caucasian counterparts. (They note that the gap is closing more each year.) Teen Vogue was invited to join the group on its outing, and its chief communications officer, Robert Fanger, tells Teen Vogue that Latinx people “have just as much stake in the future of public lands as anyone else. We want to bring Latino involvement front and center and make sure that they have a seat at the table.”
“All the work we do is about connecting Latino communities and other diverse communities with their public lands for them to become aware of it, government affairs specialist Jessica Loya tells Teen Vogue. She adds that Trump’s threat against the national monuments in particular galvanized the group in a new way. “We started a campaign called the Latinos for Heritage Campaign and, with our networks across the country, got 54,000 comments from Latinos. Ninety-nine percent of them are in support of keeping all of our National Monuments, all 27.”
According to a recent poll conducted by Hispanic Access Foundation, 94% of respondents “see public lands such a national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife areas as an ‘essential part’ of the economies in [Western] states," and 75% would support the creation of new parks and monuments in their state.
The foundation has also flown Latinx faith leaders and students to Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials, as well as representatives from the Department of the Interior. “We want decision makers to hear from those in the community, near these protected sites, to gain a better sense of why the population at large sees protection of our public lands as a moral obligation,” Fanger says.
“Trips like this are necessary — maybe not flying out of state but just being outdoors, it really helps you clear your mind,” Janelly, one of the girls on the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks trip with Hispanic Access, tells Teen Vogue. “Living so close to a city, your life is [on a] strict schedule, and you’re stressed out. Being out here, I feel like I can take a breath.”
Over two dozen other national monuments are being targeted by Trump’s order, including Bears Ears in Utah, Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, and Gold Butte in Nevada. Like many other protected lands, the features and habitats of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks are unique to the area they inhabit. Within the monument are the training sites for the Apollo astronauts, historic World War II aerial targets, 243 known archeological sites, and at least 5,000 unknown archeological sites. Scattered among the monument are Wilderness Study Areas, undeveloped federal land kept in its original state for the purposes of scientific research. It takes only a five-minute drive out of the monument before you start noticing the encroaching housing developments built in recent years. The local community that fought for this designation is worried that without protection, developers would claim the land and its unique features and fragile ecosystems would be lost forever.
“It’s not just about nature; it’s not just the land for its intrinsic value,” Loya says. “The land is important because people give it value. In order for someone to want to protect it, they have to feel connected to it.”
Organizations like Hispanic Access Foundation are not alone. In Las Cruces, Friends of Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks works to connect the local community to the national monument through free guided hikes and community programs. In most places like this, if there is land to protect, there is a nonprofit there to help. But they’re often up against a lot of government muscle with different, more material interests at heart.
On September 17, The Washington Post reported that it had obtained an official memorandumfrom Secretary Zinke to the White House that calls for the shrinking of four monuments and the altering of six more. (It was not officially released to the public.) And while Zinke alleges that the Organ Mountains national monument “is in proximity to national security installations” and that “the Potrillos Mountain Complex lends itself to drug smuggling,” a 2014 testimony from Marc Rosenblum, the former deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Program, alleges otherwise. At publish time, it’s not quite clear what will happen to the national monuments, but Hispanic Access Foundation and other advocacy groups urge that now is the time to act.
Specifically, the national monuments are at risk of being exploited by extractive energy industries and private development companies. And activists are worried that if the Trump administration reclassifies the land — including stolen land that belongs to native tribes — it would instantly be mismanaged.
This article originally appeared in Teen Vogue and is available at https://www.teenvogue.com/story/how-latinx-teens-are-connecting-with-nature-at-americas-national-monuments.