Environmental change

In a startling post-election turn-about, Sen. Domenici moves to protect New Mexico’s Valle Vidal

  • Sen. Pete Domenici on a tour of the Valle Vidal

    Megan Bowers
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....