In the span of a few hours, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., ushered to the Senate floor a bill calling for the permanent protection of the Valle Vidal, a 102,000-acre expanse of high-elevation meadows and forests cradled in the spine of northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Senate promptly passed it — with nary a dissenting vote.

Domenici’s sudden, mid-November move came as a surprise to Valle Vidal advocates, who had been working for more than three years to place the national forest area off-limits to energy development. The House unanimously passed its version of the Valle Vidal bill last July. But the measure had languished for months in the Senate, where Domenici, the powerful chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, repeatedly deflected entreaties from hundreds of constituents, 17 local governments, members of the clergy, ranchers, former energy executives, environmentalists and the National Rifle Association to protect the Valle Vidal, or "valley of life," from becoming a natural gas field.

Domenici, a longtime champion of domestic energy production, had argued that it should be up to the Forest Service to decide how to manage the Valle Vidal, which is part of Carson National Forest. In fact, in a radio forum last fall, Domenici said that he believed the Valle Vidal "is protected adequately" and that there was little reason for the Valle Vidal Protection Act.

But a week before Thanksgiving, New Mexico’s senior senator announced that he had changed his mind, calling the Valle Vidal "a magnificent and beautiful area." That evening, the measure was put to a floor vote, and the Senate unanimously passed the Valle Vidal Protection Act, sending it on to President Bush, who is expected to sign it into law.

The rest of the New Mexico delegation had thrown their support behind the legislation. But Dave Alberswerth, public-lands director for The Wilderness Society, says, "There’s no way it would have passed without Domenici. He was the key."

Domenici’s turnaround on the Valle Vidal bill is a matter of speculation among congressional staffers and Valle Vidal advocates. Almost every theory has its roots in the Nov. 7 election, just nine days before Domenici’s decision to support the legislation.

Matt Letourneau, a spokesman for Domenici, says the senator had withheld his support for the bill until a congressional tangle over a pet measure calling for expanded oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico was resolved. House Republicans have been pushing to open almost all of the continental shelf in the Gulf to development, while Domenici has been trying to convince the House to support a more selective Senate version.

"In his role as chair, he had the national picture to look at, and one of his top legislative priorities was drilling in the Gulf," Letourneau says. "He didn’t want his active support for protecting drilling at home to weaken his position for drilling elsewhere. It certainly could have hurt momentum." Domenici was also influenced by the overwhelming support for protection of the Valle Vidal from constituents of all political stripes, and the senator became convinced that waiting for the Forest Service to complete its review of a drilling proposal would take too long, Letourneau says.

Now, with Democrats poised to assume control of both chambers in January, even energy companies, which had favored the House offshore drilling bill, are urging House members to pass the Senate version in the current Congress, still controlled by Republicans. The change in political dynamics has given New Mexico’s senior senator what he sees as more freedom to act on the Valle Vidal measure.

"I have been concerned about being perceived as pushing for or even forcing energy production in other states while saying ‘not in my backyard’ in New Mexico," Domenici said in a statement issued Nov. 16. "However, at this point, I believe we can, and should, try to enact the Valle Vidal Protection Act."

The Wilderness Society’s Alberswerth finds that explanation unlikely. "He’s always been a proponent of drilling on the public lands, so I don’t think anyone would have any impressions of anything different" if Domenici had gotten behind protecting one small area early on, Alberswerth says.

Other observers who have closely followed the measure’s progress speculate that with Democrats about to take charge in 2007, Domenici simply wanted to receive credit for the Senate’s passage of the bill. Domenici’s Democratic counterpart, New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, had said he planned to put the measure on the table after he assumed the chairmanship next year.

"I think Sen. Domenici wanted to make sure he got credit for this wonderful Christmas present to New Mexico," says Jim O’Donnell, who heads the Coalition for the Valle Vidal, a group of local governments, citizens, environmental groups, hunters, ranchers and others who have led a long fight for permanent protection for the area.

Martin Heinrich, president of the Albuquerque City Council and a longtime supporter of the bill, has a slightly different take. He believes the shift in power left Domenici with "no real reason to hold it up," since the new Democratic Congress was likely to pass the bill next year anyway.

But Valle Vidal advocates — concerned that the measure would have taken a back seat to higher-priority bills in the new Congress — had hoped Domenici would stand up for the bill in the "lame duck" session.

"Our energy policy and land management policy has been so mismanaged for the past eight years that there’s so much to do … I just worried that the Valle Vidal bill would get lost in the shuffle," O’Donnell says. "It’s really wonderful that it passed this year."


April Reese is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.