President Obama declared Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region of New Mexico a national monument, protecting nearly 500,000 acres of land in southern New Mexico.
The order, which Obama signed at the Department of Interior Wednesday, creates the largest national monument of Obama's presidency so far.
"One of the great blessings of being an American is that we are blessed with some of the most beautiful landscapes and real estate on Earth," Obama said.
The region has petroglyphs from three Native American societies in its canyons, along with desert grasslands and a petrified forest. It is filled with wildlife including antelope, deer, falcons and mountain lions.
Billy the Kid inscribed his name in what is now called outlaw rock in the region, and according to legend Geronimo hid in the mountains. Astronauts who went to the moon walked in the Kilbourne Hole volcanic crater, studying its terrain and geology.
"They are a spectacular sight," Obama said of the mountains. "You’ve got massive rocks that jut up to 9,000 feet in the air and stretch for 90 miles, like the organ pipes of a giant."
Some in New Mexico praised the decision. The region is near Las Cruces.
"This designation is a long time coming, and we are excited that Doña Ana County is finally going to be able to reap the economic benefits of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument,” said Carrie Hamblen, Executive Director of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, in a statement. “I applaud President Obama for doing the right thing by making the public lands and the people of southern New Mexico a priority.”
Other community leaders had pushed for a federal designation under the antiquities act and, along with some Republican lawmakers, worry that a presidential designation will not provide for adequate border security.
Earlier this week Rep. Bob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation, sent Obama a letter urging him not to declare the land a monument because sufficient protection for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol employees were not in place. He cited an attack that a National Park Service employee at Arizona’s Chiricahua National Monument suffered last year at the hands of drug smugglers.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday that the designation undermines security. He said even Senate Democrats wanted additional security measures to be put in place.
The designation, Boehner said in a statement, will "place additional burdens on Border Patrol personnel and limit access to high crime areas along the border, making it easier for drug smugglers and human traffickers to move in and out of the country."