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Cally Carswell | Mar 15, 2011 08:00 AM

In 2009, Backpacker magazine's risk meter -- rating the status of threatened wild places along a spectrum of "saved" to "doomed" -- placed Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico about three-quarters of the way to "doomed." Nudging it to the edge of the proverbial cliff, according to Backpacker, was a singular threat: oil and gas drilling.

Energy development on this vast Chihuahuan Desert grassland -- inhabited by New Mexico's most robust pronghorn herd, black-tailed prairie dogs and some 250 songbird species -- has been hotly disputed since 1997, when an exploratory well drilled by the Harvey E. Yates Company hit gas. Environmentalists have fought doggedly to ward off the wells, and they've succeeded in delaying development so far. But their fight may soon get more complicated. Oil and gas companies are no longer the only ones eyeing the mesa's buried treasures: Geovic Mining Corp. recently staked 50 mining claims there. Though it has no concrete plans to mine yet, the company is testing rock samples for the presence of rare earth minerals.

Rising demand for rare earths -- used in hybrid car batteries, military manufacturing and in a range of high-tech devices -- and anxiety about China's corner on their market have lent momentum to renewed domestic production. The U.S.'s only rare earth mine, in Mountain Pass, Calif., was shuttered in 2002 for wreaking environmental havoc, but recently reopened. From a business perspective, it was clearly a smart move. Molycorp Inc., the mine's owner, plans to boost production by 1,200 percent -- (1,200 percent!) -- by 2014. Meanwhile, deposits being pursued in Wyoming's Black Hills National Forest by Rare Element Resources, a Canadian company, could prove even more prolific.

Rare earth graph

Rare earth buzz on Otero Mesa has, according to the Associated Press, "resulted in a renewed call for protecting the area," which is currently managed by the BLM without any special protections. The agency is rewriting its resource management plan for the mesa after a federal court threw out a version that would have opened up 1.4 million acres to oil and gas development. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson supported designating the mesa as a national monument. But New Mexico's political guard has shifted to the right: Newly re-elected conservative Rep. Steve Pearce opposes monument designation. And while new Gov. Susana Martinez hasn't made her opinion known yet, her extra cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry is one indicator of where her loyalties will lie.

"Without the permanent protection that it deserves, Otero Mesa is always going to be one drill bit, one mine shaft or one spill away from being lost to us," Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, told the AP.

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

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