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Search for Oil & Gas Endangers Otero Mesa

Nestled in southern New Mexico, The Greater Otero Mesa Area is home to over 1,000 native wildlife species, including 250 migratory songbirds, prairie dogs, raptors, mountain lions, and a genetically pure herd of 1500 pronghorn antelope. This rare network of grasslands, mountains, and rolling hills showered with yuccas and extraordinary cactuses, represents the Wild West at its finest. Over 520,000 acres of this wild grassland have been identified by citizen surveys as potential Wilderness. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has called Otero Mesa "the best public land in the United States for the relocation of the endangered aplomado falcon." In spite of the fact that Chihuahuan desert grasslands have received relatively little protection (Guadalupe National Park and the surface area of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, totaling less than 110,000 acres, represent the only protected Chihuahuan desert grasslands in the U.S.), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is moving aggressively to open the area to full-scale oil & gas development.

Several years ago, Harvey E. Yates Company (HEYCO), based in Roswell, New Mexico drilled an exploratory well in Otero Mesa to a depth of 8,400 feet, before striking natural gas. HEYCO touted the well as a "commercial success," and soon the BLM was inundated with oil and gas lease nominations, totaling over 250,000 acres. In the past, Otero Mesa was perceived by industry as an area with little resource potential and was ignored. Due to the extent of lease nominations, and the BLM's lack of adequate information on where development could occur, or how it would impact the environment, all leases were suspended until a Resource Management Plan /Environmental Impact Statement (RMP/EIS) could be created.

Upon completion of a draft RMP/EIS, three alternatives that would open between 83 to 97 percent of the area to development were created. However, there were some regulations stipulating "no surface occupancy" on the grasslands-a requirement that had industry in an uproar. Steve Yates, the vice-president of HEYCO, continued to express to the BLM, the Cheney Task Force and New Mexico Representatives that the plan was simply "too restrictive."

The net result was that the BLM created a new alternative that replaced the no-surface-occupancy stipulations with a roving 5 percent occupancy. But the BLM refused to open the EIS to further public comment. This plan in many ways replicates one proposed for Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is designed to fool the general public into believing that oil and gas drilling would only leave a small "footprint" on the landscape. In reality, the impacts of full-scale drilling would cause an unprecedented disadvantage for wildlife and habitat, and would forever extinguish the potential for wilderness. Hundreds of miles of new roads, power lines, pipelines, drill pads, complete with toxic waste ponds, would fragment the land into an industrial development. The Wildness, wildlife, and the true heartbeat of this Grassland would be consumed by constant traffic, drilling machinery, and the searing roar of a proposed natural gas fired power plant. All of these impacts would undoubtedly interfere with communications, air and water quality and the ability to move freely in search of food or prey for a variety of animals. Industry would argue that reclamation of the land would enable plants and animals to thrive after development ended. In an area so naturally dry and in the tenure of a five-year drought, the term "reclamation" is an industry term designed to placate the general public. Perhaps a better term would be "restoration", a term that if fully implemented would insure that these grasslands would in time fully recover. Sadly no real science exists that proves that reclamation or restoration can really succeed in this harsh environment. The reality is that industry will do as it has in the Carlsbad area for generations-plow the ground, drop some seeds and move on to its next 5 percent, leaving the landscape a degraded remnant of its former vitality.

Twenty-five years ago the BLM undertook a wilderness inventory of the 1.2 million acre Greater Otero Mesa Area. From records we have obtained, a considerable portion of this inventory was done with aerial photos, supplemented with limited on-site wilderness reviews and inventories. When the BLM completed this cursory review it recommended a mere 11,000 acres for intensive wilderness review. In the end, the agency decided that none qualified.

In the summer of 2001, The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance conducted a Citizen's Survey to document the wilderness potential of the area. Several months of comprehensive, "on the ground" fieldwork, that followed the BLM Wilderness Handbook, led to the realization that more than 520,000 acres of the Greater Otero Mesa Area qualify for wilderness designation. Nevertheless, the BLM is attempting to accelerate development despite the fact that this is the largest wilderness discovery in New Mexico, since the Gila Wilderness designation in 1964.

In the state where Wilderness (designation) was born, New Mexico cannot afford or tolerate a system that doesn't respect, nor identify the Wilderness importance of this rare desert grassland area. It is imperative that New Mexico's Senators hear from people on this issue. Time is running short, the BLM hopes to have the Final EIS released in the next few months. Ask them to delay implementation of the final RMP/EIS and tell them Otero Mesa demands a new, comprehensive wilderness inventory by the BLM, which fully recognizes the importance of Otero Mesa as the lifeblood of a vanishing ecosystem. The exhausted idea that energy independence must be achieved by extreme domestic drilling in wild, public lands at any cost is a slogan that does not represent what is in the best interest of New Mexicans, or the future of our country.

Senator Jeff Bingaman (Chairman of Energy & Natural Resource Committee)
US Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Senator Pete Domenici
US Senate
Washington, DC 20510

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