The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is unquestionably an area of great natural beauty. It is also one of the Southwest’s most revealing history books. What we have is nothing less than records of 13,000 years of human pre-history and history — from the first New World hunters who gazed at the nighttime stars to modern astronomers who studied the same stars while peering through telescopes on Magdalena Peak. Currently we know of a few hundred archaeological sites, but there are an estimated 5000+ unknown sites that remain unstudied throughout the monument’s nearly 500,000 acres of aspiring mountains and desert floor.
Some 160 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites have been uncovered to date in the monument’s Desert Peaks Complex alone. We see spectacular prehistoric rock art carved and painted onto cliffs, with each rock site containing an irreplaceable record of symbolic expressions of past beliefs. More prehistoric sites speak of ancient hunters and gatherers, pueblo villages occupied by the earliest farmers in the Southwest, and caves and shrines that echo with ancient sacred ceremonies.
It is through these sites at OMDP that we have a window into previous cultures and the development of the human race. Through our reconstruction of these past societies we learn what made us who we are, and most importantly our children and grandchildren learn and benefit from those who came before us.
That is why we find it most unfortunate and nearly incomprehensible that OMDP and other national monuments are now under review by the Department of the Interior for possible reduction or even total elimination. Congressman Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) is recommending that President Donald Trump shrink OMDP by 88 percent, including omitting all of the Desert Peaks and blatantly disregarding the need to protect the valuable history lessons embedded within this region. It is why we submitted our report, Cultural Resources Overview of the Desert Peaks Complex, to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke during the public comment period.
Secretary Zinke visited New Mexico late last week. We would gladly have accompanied him on foot through the Desert Peaks region, and truly bring to life the archaeological sites and history he may put at risk.
In addition to the prehistory, the Desert Peaks Complex also contains more recent stories: locations of Spanish settlement and Anglo ranching, and rocks cairns marking the boundary of the Gadsden Purchase that decided the U.S.-Mexico border. From the “Wild West” years there’s the historic Butterfield Stagecoach Trail with partially preserved stage stops, hideouts used by the infamous Billy the Kid, including “Outlaw Rock” where Billy’s inscription is still visible, and sites where Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo fought some of his last battles with the U.S. Army. From the modern era, we see remnants of the Deming Air Base practice bombing sites used to prepare our pilots before they embarked on pivotal overseas missions during World War II.
We would tell Secretary Zinke our unequivocal conclusion that the immeasurable worth of the prehistoric and historic archaeological record of the Desert Peaks Complex merits full protection under the Antiquities Act, that the total parcel of public land protected by the monument is indeed the smallest possible to preserve the significant and irreplaceable cultural resources that tell more than 13,000 years worth of stories.
Of past civilizations we still know only a little, and we have much to learn yet at OMDP’s discovered and undiscovered sites. The many peoples who populated this land before us — from the prehistoric era to the American West of the 1800s — left footprints. They left art, they left villages and roads traveled. They left clues to what we may want to embrace as a society and what we might want to let go of.
By virtue of what they’ve left behind within the protective boundaries of the OMDP National Monument we know that they existed, and from what we learn we will be the better for it. Who would want to shrink such a treasure?
Myles Miller is a principal investigator for Versar Inc. He has 33 years of professional archaeological experience in southern New Mexico and West Texas and has written and edited more than 100 reports of investigations on archaeological sites in the region. Larry Loendorf is president of Sacred Sites Research Inc. He as written four books on rock art, and is the lead author of a manual on rock art recording.
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