The Organ Mountains overlooking my home town, Las Cruces, N.M., have the absolute capacity to mesmerize. They did so the first time I laid eyes upon them two decades ago. They did so again a few days ago, when something very good happened in Barack Obama’s United States.
We celebrated the designation of these mountains by Mr. Obama as the nation’s newest National Monument, embracing not just the Organs but also their neighboring desert, lesser peaks, volcanic holes in what was once a prehistoric sea, canyons rich with the art and sacred relics of earlier native civilizations—nearly 500,000 acres of stark natural beauty and wonder.
Most of the hundreds gathered on a high school soccer field with a stunning view of the Organs had fought for a decade or more for a more protected status for these public lands. As waves of new development swept over the area, their struggle became more urgent, and took on the classic form of public discourse in our divided nation. On one side. petitioning for monument status, were The People — hikers, picture-shooters, scholars, horsemen, hunters, scientists, bird-watchers, petroglyph and pictograph admirers, wildlife fanciers, tribal councils and native American culture preservers, a spectrum of ordinary Americans as wide and deep as our rainbow race itself. On the other side, the money people: makers of off-road machines, ranchers whose hooved locusts graze our lands for pittance fees, a congressman wedded to the interests of oil and gas extractors who made him rich, NRA kooks who think this natural paradise is theirs to shoot up at will,Tea Party nuts accusing the federal government of stealing land it already owned.
One would think that protecting something so beautiful, so sacred, so valued by so many would be a simple task in a democratic nation. But it wasn’t. Money, greed and corruption wield vast power in this country against even the most noble of goals. Bill after bill to protect the lands languished in Congress.
Finally, last Wednesday, Mr. Obama invoked his powers under an Antiquities Act signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago. He proclaimed the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks area of southern New Mexico to be a National Monument.
Only two days later, on a grassy field, where the spring sun and shifting clouds made the Organs dance to the wind’s song, The People gathered for their brief, shining Camelot moment. A native American tribal leader invoked blessings upon them and the sacred lands they came to celebrate. Leaders — three U.S. senators, the Secretary of the Interior, a mayor, state legislators, commissioners, councilors, heads of large and small organizations — thanked themselves and the President for the gift of perpetuity for our magnificent lands, but unanimously decreed that the greatest gratitude should go to those who truly brought it about — The People.
There were tents with cold drinks and hot New Mexican food. A mariachi band with a tireless tenor and a trumpeter who improvised a full octave higher than the score. A fine high school choir singing real good the perfect song for the occasion, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” There was, my companion said, “a lot of love out there today.”
In our moment, I felt fleetingly the sense of serene excitement I had when the nation elected its first black President, the man I thought would lead our country to a new birth of freedom, who would launch it on a path to equality, with truth and justice for all.
Barack Obama failed terribly in the great tasks we imagined for him. But just a few days ago he did a good thing. For that brief shining Camelot moment, this land was my land.