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Pecos Prospectors

By Leah Cantor | Santa Fe Reporter
August 7, 2019

Opposition mounting as foreign mining company wants to dig for gold, copper and zinc on public lands

Ralph Vigil, the chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission, stands at the edge of the fields of his acequia-irrigated organic farm, looking out on the national forest that stretches to the peaks of the Pecos Wilderness. It's a place where people spend weekends hiking, fishing and camping along the mountain road that also leads past the scar of the old Tererro mine. The spot is where 2 million tons of ore were excavated in the 1920s, leading to the contamination of nearby wetlands and $28 million in remediation and environmental clean-up costs partially paid by taxpayers.

Nearby, a new mining proposal threatens to repeat history.

Comexico LLC, a Colorado subsidiary of Australian mining company New World Cobalt Ltd, wants to start prospecting in the area for gold, copper and zinc. It has secured the rights to 20 federal mining claims on 400 acres in the Jones- Hill and Macho Canyon areas of the Pecos Ranger District in Santa Fe and San Miguel counties and has secured interest in 4,300 acres of surrounding national forest.

The potential consequences have Vigil and others raising red flags.

This season, the old Terrero site is a grassy hillside arrayed in wildflowers. But Vigil remembers when it was a mess of rocky debris, open mine shafts and abandoned buildings. He remembers when the Pecos River ran yellow with acidic mineral runoff after heavy spring rainstorms in 1991, killing the trout in the river and 90,000 fish at the Lisboa Springs Fish Hatchery downstream. Even today, though reclamation efforts have helped camouflage the damage, it is still a Superfund site leaching poisons into the surrounding watershed.

"We have to protect the right to clean and healthy water. I mean, that should be our most essential right other than the right to breathe, even before freedom of speech or any other freedom we should have the freedom to clean water because that's what sustains life for all of us," says Vigil, his brow furrowed as he gazes north towards the mountains where the streams that feed the Pecos acequia system originate. "It's not just about turning on a faucet, it's about where does that water come from when that fountain turns on? It's up there, it all starts up there. A lot of people don't understand that."

In June, Comexico submitted a plan of operations to the Santa Fe National Forest and the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department's Mining and Minerals Division. It also applied for an exploratory permit for core drilling operations on up to 2.2 acres on Jones Hill.

According to the investor page of New World Cobalt's website, the company hopes "that mine development [at Jones Hill] can be advanced as quickly as practicable," and has plans for "aggressively exploring" prospects in the surrounding area, including in Dalton Canyon and Doctor Creek.

The company states that drilling could begin as early as October. However, Santa Fe National Forest Service Geologist Larry Gore tells SFR by phone that's a highly unrealistic timeline, partly due to the complexities of the terrain and wildlife habitats of the area and public pushback, but also because Comexico "keeps changing their proposal," delaying the permitting process.

Julie Anne Overton, the Officer of Public Affairs for the Forest Service, is also quick to point out that the 1872 Mining Act prohibits the Forest Service from stopping any mining activity on federal land. Overton says the Forest Service is in the process of deciding what level of assessment will be required for the new Terrero mine site.

The Upper Pecos Watershed organization is leading a coalition in the hopes of stalling the process if not stopping it altogether by demanding the most rigorous environmental and cultural review assessments called for by law under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The coalition includes Pecos residents and business owners, environmental advocacy groups, and traditional land users such as Vigil and members of the Pecos, Tesuque, and Jemez pueblos whose lands could be affected by the mine.

At the proposed mine site on Jones Hill, Garrett VeneKlasen, the northern field coordinator for New Mexico Wild, points out the little pink prospecting flags that mark out the possible locations of 30 drill holes, each 500 to 4,000 feet deep, that the company will use to assess mineral deposits.

"I really could not think of a worse place for a mine," says VeneKlasen, explaining that the mountain is at the headwater for four distinct watersheds and is home to endangered and threatened species, including the spotted owl, Rio Grande cutthroat trout and the flowering Holy Ghost ipomopsis, a plant only found wild in the Holy Ghost Canyon of the Santa Fe National Forest.

Part of the problem, he says, is that Comexico is planning to contract third-party analysts to conduct required assessments.

"The Forest Service has no plans to conduct its own surveys and is relying on experts who are getting paid by a foreign company that stands to make millions if not billions of dollars," VeneKlasen says. "How can they not see this as a clear conflict of interest?"

Overton confirms that the agency often relies on biological and archaeological surveys done by third-party contractors when they "don't have the available staff to conduct surveys internally." However, both Overton and Gore say outside consultants, even if hired by the mining company, must be reviewed by the department and meet Forest Service standards.

Though counties have no jurisdiction over federal land, in June the Board of Commissioners of San Miguel County passed a resolution in opposition to Comexico's application. The Santa Fe County Commission is set to discuss it soon, a spokeswoman tells SFR.

Tribal concerns are geared more toward the possible disturbance of cultural sites of the Pecos and Tesuque pueblos located in the area, says Roger Fragua, a member of the Jemez Pueblo and a descendant of the Pecos Pueblo.

Fragua is careful to clarify that his role in the coalition is as a member of Climate Advocates/Voces Unidas (CAVU), an environmental media organization covering the mine, and not as an official representative of any of the impacted pueblos.

"This is an opportunity for the federal government and industry to do the right thing. We are still early enough in the process for proper [tribal] consultation to occur," he says.

The permit process going forward could take months, Forest Service officials tell SFR. The next step is scoping public opinion.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe Reporter.

Wilderness rangers, preserving New Mexico forests

July 28, 2019
By Robert Nott | Santa Fe New Mexican

The abandoned campfire Doug Campbell found not far off of the Winsor Trail was “barely legal.”

It was also unsightly, unnecessary and unattended — sitting just past the gate leading to the wilderness section of the trail in the Santa Fe National Forest. The campsite was circled by at least a dozen large rocks, outside of which sat two very long logs.

Those who built it left trash behind too — glass, a bungee cord, burned pieces of silverware.

Campbell and a fellow wilderness ranger, Kat Deutsch, set about dismantling the site in hopes of discouraging others from using it. And then, not far away, they found another, even trashier campsite, including badly singed liquor bottles.

Dismantling and downsizing such campsites is just one of many tasks performed in the Wilderness Ranger Program, a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwestern Region (Arizona and New Mexico) and the nonprofit New Mexico Wilderness Association. It is one of several initiatives designed to provide “on the ground” oversight of the state’s forests.

“We used to have wildlife management rangers all around the country, but that doesn’t really happen as much anymore because of a cutback in funding,” said Will Ribbans, who oversees the Wilderness Ranger program for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

“It’s about being out here, being in the forests, walking the trails — how it used to be,” he said.

Wilderness rangers, preserving New Mexico forests
The Santa Fe Ski Basin is visible from Winsor Trail. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

The ranger teams work in eight-day shifts, often spending most of that time on multiday sojourns deep in the forest. They assess trail conditions, catalog invasive species, help visitors and backpackers out on the trail, plus inventory, disband or downsize campsites.

They also engage volunteers — including youth — in forest stewardship programs.

Most of the time, they traverse rarely or never-used trails, even finding some that nature has reclaimed. Last week, Campbell and Deutsch covered the more popular Winsor Trail as light rain from an oncoming storm fell . They found the two campsites — one of which Campbell considered barely legal because it was just about 50 feet off the closest trail.

It’s their job to inventory campsites and enter information into an app on an iPhone for data collection and analysis purposes.

Campbell, Deutsch — a North Carolina college student serving as a summer intern for the program this year — and the other Wilderness Rangers also carry saws to cut up large trees that fall over trails.

Wilderness rangers, preserving New Mexico forests
Kat Deutsch, Wilderness Ranger intern, helps dismantle a large campfire left just off the entrance to the Pecos Wilderness. The ranger program, a partnership between the Forest Service and New Mexico Wild, was created to increase wildness stewardship through trail assessment and clearing, campsite rehabilitation, public outreach and more. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

Finding and reporting on invasive species, such as bull thistle, is another job. Ribbans said while the rangers want to let nature “do its thing,” they also want to know the full extent of such species and what sort of impact they have on the environment.

Cleaning up and hauling out trash, if possible, is another duty. So is letting hikers know which trails may not be accessible because of flooding, snowfall or other obstacles. While it’s not the Wilderness Rangers’ job to focus on fire prevention, they report any fires, Ribbans said.

While Campbell said he’s never seen anything dangerous or unusual in the forests, he has come across human-made benches, chairs, huts and even shelves made out of wood.

He often sees elk and other nonthreatening species. He recently came upon a mountain lion burying a recent kill along one trail. He stopped long enough to figure out what to do before the cat noticed him and took off in the other direction. Campbell took a photo of the prey, a deer, half-buried nearby.

The program includes a volunteer component, in which the rangers rely on the help of one or two hardy people willing to go out on the trail for a day or two, or utilize the efforts of a group of volunteers for a specific one-day job, such as chopping up fallen trees. Next month, they will work with a band of some two dozen students from United World College outside Las Vegas, N.M., on such a project.

The program is funded with Forest Service grant money on a year-to-year basis, said Bjorn Frederickson, an acting supervisor with the Santa Fe National Forest who helped initiate the Wilderness Rangers project in 2015. The program costs $200,000 a year to cover the costs of the rangers, who work roughly May-to-September, he said.

While all parties in the project are happy with the program, he said there’s not a lot of certainty about what will happen next regarding funding. Nationally, the Forest Service’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 is $5.14 billion, some $800 to $900 million less than the previous year’s allocation.

“Our hope is that we can continue to provide a presence in the forest … so people can see our organizations work out there,” Frederickson said. I think the public is appreciative of seeing someone working in a professional capacity to provide direct service and contact with them.”

Sisters Storm and Darion Dorrough, who encountered Campbell and Deutsch on the Winsor Trail on Monday, agreed. Storm, who said she has been hiking the forests for about a year and a half, said it was the first time she had encountered a ranger on the trail.

“It makes me feel a lot safer to see other people around,” she said. “It’s awesome to get directional help out here, and you kind of expect to see a ranger on the trails.”

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Mining in the Santa Fe National Forest?

By Radio Cafe | August 5, 2019

A mining company is exploring the possibility of mineral extraction in the National Forest near Pecos. We talk to Ralph Vigil of the New Mexico Acequia Commission and the Upper Pecos Watershed Association, and Garrett VeneKlasen of New Mexico Wild about the potential consequences to our state’s land, wildlife, and water.

Listen to the full interview here.

Latino Conservation Week aims to get locals outside, speaking up

July 22, 2019
By David Marquez | Silver City Daily Press and Independent

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance hosted their Grapevine and Comida event at the Grapevine campground Saturday, a finale to all of the work they’ve done during Latino Conservation Week to promote the Wild and Scenic designation proposal for the Gila, Mimbres, and San Francisco rivers.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, or New Mexico Wild, is a nonprofit, statewide organization that seeks to protect and restore wilderness areas in the state.

“Here, right now, the N.M. Wild’s biggest campaign is the Wild and Scenic designations for the Gila, Mimbres, and the San Francisco” rivers, said Simon Sotelo, Gila community organizer for New Mexico Wild.

Even before this week’s events, the campaign for the Wild and Scenic designation has been in the works for around five years, according to Public Lands Fellow Grecia Nuñez, who works with New Mexico Wild in Las Cruces.

“This is one of our main focuses here in southern New Mexico,” Nuñez said. “Our organization is statewide, but the Gila is a very important thing to us.”

“We are proposing the main sum of the Gila and its headwaters, as well as McKnight Canyon, which is the headwaters of the Mimbres River,” Sotelo said. “There’s also the San Francisco River, which would be the Upper San Francisco Box and the lower San Francisco.”

In order to build support for the federal designation for the rivers, the organization promotes the areas that they are working toward protecting — allowing the communities that surround them to experience those areas, and, in turn, give their support to the campaign.

“It is a community-driven proposal,” Sotelo said. “What that means is that we would like for the community to support it — which we have, we’ve gotten plenty of support.”

As of now, New Mexico Wild counts 150 small businesses, faith-based groups, some other local conservation groups, and more than 100 individuals who have sent letters of support. New Mexico Wild has also received support from the town of Hurley, the city of Bayard, and the Silver City Town Council.

Sotelo said Latino Conservation Week — a national initiative which seeks to involve the Latino demographic in decisions related to conservation — has an important role in this campaign.

“With proposing Wild and Scenic, and trying to garner support for that, we recognize that we need every voice that we can get in order to make this happen,” he said. “Let’s get these people involved, let’s get this demographic involved and introduce them to what is actually going on.”

Latino Conservation Week also extends well beyond the bounds of the New Mexico Wild campaign. It serves a larger purpose of involving Latinos in conservation discussions and decisions in their communities.

It’s “a way to encourage Hispanics, Latinos, Mexicanos — however they describe themselves — to get outdoors more, and to get them more involved in the conversation of conservation,” Sotelo said.

During the week, which started July 13 and ended the 21st, New Mexico Wild, in association with various conservancy groups, coordinated multiple events to expose the community to the wilderness areas that they are trying to protect.

They led hikes — one of which was to the Three-Mile Dwelling, a cliff dwelling located on the West Fork of the Gila River.

Another hike was led in partnership with the Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society, where they hiked along the Mogollon Box and into a riparian corridor there.

“We were trying to educate people by saying, ‘This is an area that’s being proposed for Wild and Scenic, and these are the animals that use this corridor as habitat, or use it for their migratory habitat,’” Sotelo said.

They also invited community members to hike a portion of the Continental Divide Trail.

On Thursday, they hosted a gallery opening dedicated to showcasing the areas on which they are attempting to place a Wild and Scenic designation.

“Not every person in Silver City is able to access those easily, so we took a bunch of artists out to areas that are being proposed for Wild and Scenic, and we asked them to be inspired by what they saw,” Sotelo said. “The idea was to give a visual representation of what we are proposing for protection.”

The final event of the week was on Saturday, at the Grapevine Campground, where attendees enjoyed food, a float down the Gila and a hike, among other activities.

Nuñez was among the members who floated down the river.

“This is the last free-flowing river in New Mexico,” she said. “So to protect it, and protect riparian habitat, and the ecosystems that it supports — it’s something that is like a legacy, for future generations to be able to see this area. It might not be full of water, like some of these other Wild and Scenic rivers up in Oregon and Washington state, but in a desert, it’s such a beautiful thing to have a flowing river.”

Angel Peña, the southern director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, coordinated events for Latino Conservation Week in Las Cruces and was in Grant County for the event Saturday. From his home in Las Cruces, he said, he has seen the effects of the damming of the Rio Grande.

“Our river doesn’t flow year-round — this is the only time it flows,” Peña said. “Which makes [the Gila] so much more important, because it does flow year-round for all of these people.”

Sotelo said the Latino Conservation Week events helped in the furthering of their campaign efforts.

“I think the week was a huge success,” he said. “Not only did we get a lot of people involved in our activities, we also generated a lot of positive content for all of these proposals.”

New Mexico Wild hopes to finalize the proposal, which would be drafted into legislation, and then introduced and voted on by Congress, by early or mid-2020.

This article originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press and Independent.