The monumental fight over Otero Mesa


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

The decade-long tussle over energy development in New Mexico's Otero Mesa has been reinvigorated recently, as hardrock mining claims now threaten the region for the first time.

The area, sometimes referred to as the "Southwest's Serengeti," is a 1.2 million-acre stretch of undisturbed Chihuahuan Desert grassland. The sprawling but sensitive expanses of black grama are home to over 1,000

species of native wildlife including a genetically-pure herd of pronghorn antelope, the endangered northern aplomado falcon, mountain lions, mule deer, bald and golden eagles and hundreds of species of plants, insects and migratory birds.

Otero Mesa is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which is mandated to facilitate exploration, development and production of energy on appropriate public lands. During the second Bush's administration there was a push to advance oil and gas extraction on the Otero Mesa.

But whether or not the area's fragile ecology can withstand such activity became central to the ongoing row. Drilling opponents—which then included the State of New Mexico—fought industry all the way to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals which, in 2009, found that the BLM's Resource Management Plan Amendment fell short in assessing the potential impacts of oil and gas development, including possible habitat fragmentation and contamination of the Salt Basin Aquifer which underlies the mesa.

The BLM is now working on a new management plan, which is expected to be released early next year.

 New to the debate is the discovery that Otero Mesa may harbor a cache of valuable minerals. A 2010 U.S. Geological Survey study revealed that the Cornudas Range, including 7,280-foot Wind Mountain, may hold 200 tons of minerals, including highly sought-after rare earth metals. Seeing dollar signs, Colorado-based Geovic Mining Corp. staked 161 mineral claims (five square miles worth) this spring, nearby some of the most visited parts of Otero.

The General Mining Act of 1872 allows companies to develop staked claims but the BLM is required to do environmental reviews of all proposed actions. Conservationists say exploration and mining of the area could lead to destruction on the scale of the mountaintop removal seen in Appalachia. The company says digging for rare earths would mean only minor disturbances.

Regardless, the claims have led to a renewed push to declare Otero Mesa a national monument. While President Obama has yet to invoke his authority to establish monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906, a BLM memo leaked last year put Otero on a hot list of locations that qualify for nomination.

Although Obama has said that only places with local support for a monument in their backyard will make the cut, the designation is at the president's discretion; it requires no Congressional consideration or approval. Fifteen out of the past eighteen presidents have designated national monuments, some amid a firestorm of criticism.

An elevation to national monument would permanently protect the Otero Mesa from new mining and drilling claims. Existing claims, including Geovic Mining Corp.'s, would remain valid but would be scrutinized for their economic fruitfulness.

Adding their voices to those of environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts in the drive for monument status are members of the Mescalero Apache, a tribe that took refuge in the mountains of southern New Mexico in the 18th century and still assert ancestral ties to the mesa. In a letter to their tribal president, the group Mescalero Apache Advocates expressed their spiritual connection to Wind Mountain and to the archaeological artifacts that are among the area's attractions. "And on those massive stones that fell from the mountain top, our people expressed through rock paintings their challenges, their visions, and their stories, like their ancient ancestors who dwelled there before them," they said.

Last month, the Mescaleros met with Department of the Interior and New Mexican officials, expressing concern for the natural resources which they believe drilling and mining endanger, including the huge untapped aquifer underlying Otero, which may be the largest remaining in the state. They worry that the fractured geology that characterizes the area makes that reserve vulnerable to contamination.

Despite the desire of many local and national groups to award the mesa a higher level of protection, a monument designation will not come easily. Western lawmakers are particularly touchy about the subject, arguing that states and Congress should have more say in what happens to public land. This type of dissention goes as far back as western members of Congress opposing Theodore Roosevelt's establishment of large new reserves on federal lands.

Last May, the Otero County Commission passed an ordinance opposing national monument protection for Otero Mesa, likely at the behest of local ranchers who fear the status change will threaten their cheap grazing on public lands. While Susana Martinez, the state's new governor, hasn't voiced her stance, her coziness with oil and gas industries makes her an unlikely ally for conservation.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) has been an outspoken critic, and has actively campaigned not only to prevent protection of Otero Mesa but to change the way national monuments are designated nationwide. He is a co-sponsor of H.R. 302, legislation that would require the president—in direct opposition to the Antiquities Act—to secure state consent before declaring a national monument. "When conserving our natural resources, it is important to have a balanced approach that includes local priorities, such as jobs, the economy, private property and support," a Pearce spokesman told the Environment & Energy Daily.

The tired argument that conservation will mean economic paralysis wherever the magic wand of protection lands is a disingenuous one in the case of Otero Mesa. If elected officials in New Mexico are truly interested in acting in the best interests, now and in the future, of their constituents, they need to run the numbers.

An analysis of the potential impacts, on the southern New Mexican economy, of naming Otero Mesa National Monument was done recently by Headwaters Economics, an independent, non-profit research group.

"The short answer is that repeated academic studies have shown that investments in public lands conservation and restoration provide an immediate return through new employment and revenue," says author Ben Alexander. The study cites the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which recently found that "recreation and tourism development contributes to rural well-being, increasing local employment, wage levels, and income, reducing poverty, and improving education and health.”

Unlike the small-scale, short-term benefits of resource extraction that would be expected for Otero Mesa residents, protected public lands also help to promote long-term economic growth, says the Headwaters study, "because of their ability to attract and retain people, entrepreneurs, and the growing number of retirees who locate for quality of life reasons." Published research also shows that natural amenities help sustain property values and attract new investment.

While a national monument designation "would not harm agricultural uses or military employment" in the area, says the study, passing up an opportunity to diversify the economy of southern New Mexico and to boost its long-term resiliency by protecting its unique desert grasslands could be a bad move. "Looking at mineral wealth, the [BLM's] analysis showed little reason to believe that the local economy would benefit from projected fossil fuel extraction on Otero Mesa--and that the limited revenue from mineral extraction might not even cover the share of infrastructure and service costs," says Alexander.

It's difficult to hear amid the anti-environmental mewling that's overtaken Congress nowadays, but here it is loud and clear: conservation pays. If they are honestly focused on "local priorities, such as jobs, the economy, private property and support," as Rep. Pearce's camp purports to be, they would have to support national monument status for Otero Mesa. Anything less is playing politics with our public lands.


Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of Otero Mesa courtesy BLM.

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