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 regulations.
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 get run over by trucks servicing wells each day, or they get
poisoned when they lap up the sweet anti-freeze 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 live.
Gradually, I came to see why everyone else thought I was
nuts. All of San Juan County in southern 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 federally
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 coal-bed 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, and when.
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 its 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 officials.