Here’s what I once believed: that if the president knew about the damage done to our land by the energy industry, the damage would cease.
I once believed
that if you could show that industry can extract gas without
damaging land right near us — as it does on the Southern Ute
Indian Reservation, and on Ted Turner’s Vermijo Ranch —
that those examples would be followed by every company.
Believing that, I went to Washington, D.C., in August 2002, and met
with Kathleen Clarke, who runs the Bureau of Land Management; I met
with Rebecca Watson, a Montanan high in the Department of Interior;
I met with V.A. Stephens, who is with the Council on Environmental
Quality; and I met with the New Mexico congressional staffs. I told
them all that gas drilling could be done right, but that it was
being done wrong. I begged them to enforce existing
I came home to the small town of Aztec, N.M.,
and waited for change. I’m still waiting. I suppose not
everyone can waltz into Washington and get that kind of entree. But
I ran George Bush’s 2000 campaign in my part of New Mexico. I
ran Sen. Pete Domenici’s campaign in my county in 1996. Our
family has been on the land here for six generations and going on
three centuries. We graze cattle on 17 square miles of Bureau of
Land Management, state and our private land.
We once ran
600 cows on those 35,000 acres. Today, we can barely keep 100 cows.
Grass and shrubs are now roads, drill pads or scars left by
pipeline paths. We have trouble keeping our few cows alive because
they are run over by trucks servicing wells each day, or they are
poisoned when they lap up the sweet antifreeze leaking out of
unfenced compressor engines.
I have not taken this
quietly. I have been on a mission for 16 years. In the beginning, I
wanted to save the 400-acre farm and the adjacent piece of wild
land in northwest New Mexico that I care most about. That’s
not much out of 35,000 acres. My family thought I was nuts. My son
was a senior in high school, and resisted my attempts to enlist
him. My husband said I was wasting my time.
They knew I
was going against an industry that sharpened its teeth chewing on
little people. They thought industry had the upper hand, legally
speaking. But I believed industry had the upper hand because it
threatened and intimidated. I once met Rosa Parks. I thought: If
that little lady could sit, alone, in the front of a bus filled
with hostile passengers, then I could act to protect where I
Gradually, I came to see why everyone else thought I
was nuts. All of San Juan County in northern New Mexico has been
leased for 50 years to gas companies. Our fathers and grandfathers
signed these “perpetual” leases long ago, when the gas
companies were owned and run by neighbors. The rest of the land is
The industry claims its right to
underground minerals trumps our rights to the surface. We
don’t deny their rights. We just say that we also have
rights. Unfortunately for us and our cows and the wildlife, we are
on top of unimaginable wealth, in the form of coalbed methane. Each
year, our small, rural and fairly poor county produces $2.4
billion, and most of that money flows right out of here.
My 400 acres sit at the heart of this wealth. Nevertheless, several
of us last fall locked the gates to our private land. We have not
denied access to those who have leases. But we now control the
access. We were tired of being told by the companies that
“someone else” had killed the cow, or the deer, or
drove across freshly reseeded land. Now we know who is on our land,
It’s perfectly logical and legal to
control access to private land, except in gas country. So the
companies pulled us into court. This, it turned out, was not a bad
thing. We found out that industry doesn’t have the rights it
says it has. And when we go to court, we don’t go alone. We
bring our rancher friends. We bring our environmental friends
— friends we never dreamed of having. We bring pictures of
the surface damage — pictures that are so bad other states
use them to show what happens when you trust industry and the BLM
to “do the right thing.”
We’ve been in
more newspapers than I can count. We’ve been in People
magazine. We’ve been on Tom Brokaw’s TV news program.
This natural gas boom has become a Western plague. In conservative
Wyoming, home to Vice President Dick Cheney, the reaction against
coalbed methane helped elected a Democratic governor.
this isn’t a partisan issue. We had as much trouble under
Clinton as we do under Bush. This is a campaign-contribution
problem. They give more than we can.
At times, it seems
hopeless. Then I hear from people facing similar situations in
Colorado, in Montana, in Wyoming, in Utah. Many are like us —
conservative, Republican, pro-free enterprise people. Others are
environmentalists, or just care about land and animals.
Shortly, there will be a huge natural gas explosion, but it
won’t be pipelines or gas wells that blow. The explosion will
come from the average Westerner, who is tired of being used by the
oil and gas industry, with the help of state and federal