Photo Credit: David Soules
Some of New Mexico’s most special places have a new level of protection thanks to a sweeping public lands conservation bill that created 1.3 million acres of Wilderness across the country, including 272,586 acres in New Mexico, the majority in Dona Ana County. Ten new wilderness areas within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument were part of S. 47, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019.
For more than a decade, New Mexico Wild and a broad coalition of Native Americans, sportsmen, small business owners, faith leaders, conservationists and local elected officials worked to protect the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. New Mexico Wild began hiring Las Cruces based grassroots organizers for the effort beginning in 2005. In 2014, President Obama made the beautifully rugged landscape with its rich natural and cultural resources a national monument.
In the heart of the monument were eight Wilderness Study Areas and two additional areas we proposed for Wilderness designation. (Much of the land has been managed as Wilderness Study Areas since the 1980s when it was provided interim protected status. Other areas in the Organ Mountains were given Wilderness Study Area status in 1993.) They have the highest quality habitat, boast the healthiest plant and animal populations and are critical components of healthy watersheds. These areas boast sky island mountains, native Chihuahuan Desert grasslands, caves, unique lava flows, limestone cliffs and winding canyons that draw visitors to Doña Ana County. To complete the community’s original vision, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, introduced Wilderness legislation for these areas.
At 179,846 acres, a complex of six Wilderness areas centered on the Potrillo Mountains southwest of Las Cruces now represents the fourth-largest Wilderness complex in New Mexico, after the Gila (559,311 acres), the Aldo Leopold (203,548 acres) and the Pecos Wilderness areas (221,806 acres).
ADEN LAVA FLOW WILDERNESS (27,673 acres)
This area offers one of the best opportunities in the continental United States to view lava flows and the many unique shapes and structures created by them. Basalt flows, volcanic craters and sand dunes characterize the landscape 20 miles southwest of Las Cruces where a shield volcano of Aden Crater produced extensive lava flows more than 10,000 years ago. The Aden Lava Flow contains pressure ridges, lava tubes and crevices up to five feet wide and 20 to 30 feet deep. These features provide cover for wildlife and excellent opportunities for photography and geological sightseeing.
POTRILLO MOUNTAINS WILDERNESS (105,085 acres)
Extinct volcanoes, black lava fields and mile after mile of desert grassland combine to give the West Potrillo Mountains qualities found nowhere else in New Mexico. Just 45 minutes from El Paso and Las Cruces is one of the largest relatively undisturbed stretches of Chihuahuan Desert landscape in the state. In one of the large basins in the center of the mountains, a unique “cholla savannah” features eight- to 10-foot-tall cholla cactus. Ephemeral lakes in Indian Basin provide seasonal ponds for ducks, and an abundance of small mammals attracts raptors in the winter months. Several undisturbed structures dating from 1300 to 1400 AD also have been found here. Most hiking focuses on gaining the tops of the summits for spectacular desert vistas.
CINDER CONE WILDERNESS (16,935 acres)
This area features an extremely high concentration of undisturbed cinder cone mountains and rich wildlife habitat prized by hunters and non-hunters alike.
EAST POTRILLO MOUNTAINS WILDERNESS (12,155 acres)
The East Potrillos ("colt" in Spanish) can be generally described as an uplifted west-tilted fault-block. The basal rocks in the range are sedimentary, and consist of limestone, dolomites, and silty beds of Middle Permian age. No perennial streams originate in the range, and none flow nearby. Plant communities can be generally characterized as Chihuahuan desert scrublands, creosote bush desert, and desert grasslands. The East Potrillo Mountains receive few visitors, due to the rugged topography and the lack of water or shade. The range is long and narrow, with an orientation trending NNW to SSE. The maximum elevation of the range is approximately 5,300 feet, which provides a relief of nearly 1000 feet above the flats to the east. Access to the general vicinity is through New Mexico State Road 9, and several unpaved county roads.
MOUNT RILEY WILDERNESS (8,382 acres)
Mount Riley is the highest point in the area, rising abruptly more than 1,700 feet above the surrounding desert plain to an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet. The Wilderness, on the east side of the Potrillo Mountains section of the monument, is comprised of three volcanic cinder cones. There are no maintained trails to the summits, but hikers who find a route to the top are rewarded with fine views.
WHITETHORN WILDERNESS (9,616 acres)
The whitethorn acacia, prevalent here, is the area’s namesake. The native shrub is a key year-round food source for quail and a summer food source for desert mule deer. Weathered lava invites in small and large wildlife, and views stretch hundreds of miles.
In addition to the Potrillo Mountains complex, the act created four other Wilderness areas:
SIERRA DE LAS UVAS WILDERNESS (11,114 acres)
These volcanic mountains support outstanding high desert grasslands and sustain thriving populations of quail, deer, javelina and other wildlife. In addition, three different Native American cultures left their marks in various sites throughout these scenic mountains; you might be fortunate to find petroglyphs made by peoples of the Jornada Mogollon Culture.
BROAD CANYON WILDERNESS (13,902 acres)
A secluded gem, the Broad Canyon area shelters hidden winding canyons, water pools, flat topped mountains and dozens of rich cultural sites. Only 45 minutes from Las Cruces, this area has beautiful views that stretch across southern New Mexico and into Mexico and is a vital watershed draining more than 75 square miles of land. It is home to countless archeological sites and the most extensive record of previous Native American habitation within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region.
ROBLEDO MOUNTAINS WILDERNESS (16,776 acres)
The Robledo Mountains house the internationally significant Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, a small section of which is within the new Wilderness area. Named after Spanish colonist Pedro Robledo, these mountains sheltered Billy the Kid in the late 19th century and are potential habitat for desert bighorn sheep reintroduction.
ORGAN MOUNTAINS WILDERNESS (19,916 acres)
This Wilderness is the focal point of the Organ Mountains section of the monument and provides great recreation opportunities, important wildlife habitat and critical watershed protection. A wide variety of vegetation types are found here, and the presence of seasonal springs and streams makes the area critically important to wildlife, including golden eagles, hawks, owls and mule deer. The jagged, high spires of the Organ Mountains define the Mesilla Valley and form one of the steepest mountain ranges in the Western United States. The Organs were mentioned in the earliest Spanish journals, and now are popular with hikers and rock climbers.
In total, these 10 new Wilderness areas comprise 241,554 acres. All are managed by the Bureau of Land Management.