The country’s busiest oil and gas office has a plan for more drilling

If there is one swath of land that holds the most promise for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vision for energy dominance, it might be southeast New Mexico. The 6-million acre region includes part of the Permian Basin, which stretches into west Texas and is expected to produce more than any other nation except Saudi Arabia by 2023. In August, the Bureau of Land Management released a 1,500-page draft of a new management plan for the New Mexico side of the basin that will determine how its resources will be used for the next 20 years and beyond.

The BLM’s Carlsbad field office, which oversees this three-county region, is the busiest in the nation for oil and gas drilling. It’s also a landscape of deserts, grasslands, small mountain ranges and spectacular underground caves. One of the first major resource management plans in the country to be released under the Trump administration, it paves the way for more drilling.

The plan was eight years in the making and originally expected for release under the Obama administration but was delayed after President Donald Trump was elected. According to documents obtained by High Country News, the Carlsbad field office originally intended to protect certain areas for wildlife, scenic or cultural values that are not included in the new version. For instance, maps drafted in 2016 show that BLM’s preferred alternative included more extensive protection for grasslands west of the 12,000-person town of Artesia. According to multiple sources close to the planning process, who spoke to HCN on condition of anonymity, the BLM pivoted to change “no-surface occupancy” restrictions on drilling — which prohibit companies from disturbing the surface of a sensitive area — to be less restrictive in several locations that were part of the draft plan before Trump was elected.

In response to the new administration’s priorities, “the BLM performed a review of Executive Orders, Secretarial Orders, and Secretarial Memos,” James Stovall, the BLM manager of Pecos Field District, which includes the Carlsbad field office, wrote to HCN in an email. “The team then reviewed, and revised as necessary.”

Jim Goodbar, a cave and karst specialist employed by the BLM in New Mexico for 38 years before retiring in January, worked on the resource plan under the new presidential administration. During that time, he noticed priorities shift in line with Trump’s energy-first vision. “There was definitely a sense that everybody was thinking, we wished we’d gotten it approved prior to the change of the guard,” Goodbar said. The former employee also told HCN he’s concerned the draft RMP uses 2014 data about water and mineral resources. “Since then, there have been major (oil) discoveries, and the numbers of wells and sizes of the pads have changed quite dramatically,” Goodbar said. “So that could be a lot more environmental impact than they would actually be reporting.”

Southeast New Mexico has been drilled for 90 years already, and activity has ramped up drastically in the past several. Seventy-one percent of BLM’s acreage here is leased for drilling, which means it’s either slated for development or already in use. “I think there’s a real danger that Carlsbad is going to become a single-use field office,” said Judy Calman, an environmental attorney with New Mexico Wild, a statewide conservation nonprofit. “More than other field offices, Carlsbad faces more pressure to do more for conservation because it’s so on the verge of becoming just an oil and gas field office.”

The BLM wrote its last Carlsbad plan in 1988, which left all but 11,600 subsurface acres, of 2.6 million, open for leasing. A lot has changed since then, including new innovations in fracking methods and technology that means oil-and-gas development can move faster than ever before. Climate change has also increased the importance of riparian areas for threatened or endangered species like the Texas hornshell mussel and the Pecos gambusia. 

The BLM’s preferred alternative would close three percent of the management area to new drilling, or 88,500 acres, and the agency estimates it would add more than 11,000 oil-and-gas jobs in the next 20 years.  As with all federal land plans, the draft presents four “alternatives” with varying priorities. The more conservation-oriented option would close 40 percent of the land to new leases and could create more than 9,000 industry jobs.

Environmentalists pushed for higher protections for 550,900 acres of desert riparian zones, Great Blue Heron habitat, unique salt playas, and grasslands with one of the nation’s highest diversity of bird species. BLM’s preferred alternative within the new draft doesn’t include those four nominations for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, though the agency did write its own proposals for new ACEC designations.

Tension between conservationists and industry in the Carlsbad region also extends deep underground. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, first designated in 1923 as a monument, protects over 100 miles of caves that formed millions years ago and have yet to be fully explored. “The cave and karst resources ripple out far beyond the boundary of the park,” said Jerry Otero of the National Park Conservation Association. The cave networks are connected to aquifers, which could be contaminated if drilled into for oil and gas, Otero said. "It’s very likely groundwater would be impacted and there is a possibility that caves and underground structures connected to the cave systems within the park could be penetrated and contaminated,” if certain areas near the park are leased, added Ernie Atencio, NPCA’s New Mexico senior program manager.

Advocates of the park also want the new BLM plan to reflect the fact it is an international tourist attraction. “If you’re standing at the park, at the visitors center and you look out and see and industrial landscape, your experience is not the same,” Otero said.

Many locals to southeast New Mexico are advocating for fewer restrictions on the oil and gas industry. Dan Girand, director of legislative and regulatory affairs at Mack Energy Corporation, an oil and gas producer based in Artesia, is concerned the plan will close certain lands to drilling and put restrictions on others. “Once they lease it to us, they’re going to have conditions to it, which could cost us a whole bunch of money,” said Girand, who is also chairman of Chaves County Lands Council. Oil and gas is an important economic driver for communities in the area and county commissioners would like to see even more focus on drilling and greater local input in the process. Fifteen percent of jobs in the area are in mining or the oil-and-gas industry. The per capita income of this three-county region was $39,500 in 2016, according to Headwaters Economics data.

“My preference in this whole deal would be for this draft to be thrown in the trashcan and the BLM to actually come coordinate with the counties putting this resource management plan together,” Chaves County Commissioner Will Cavin said of the draft, invoking the legal requirement federal agencies have to work alongside locals. Using the provision known as “coordination” has become a strategy in recent years for conservatives in many pockets of the West, seeking more influence in the federal planning process. Groups like the nonprofit American Stewards of Liberty, based in Texas, once funded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, put on local trainings, including in southeast New Mexico, to teach counties to leverage federal law to gain more influence. 

Cavin called for more coordination between regional federal employees and locals, he also said he and other county commissioners met with BLM brass on multiple occasions earlier this year to voice their opinions about the new RMP, including with BLM Deputy Director Brian Steed and Deputy Director of the Office of External Affairs Tim Williams. 

The BLM will hold eight public meetings about the RMP between Sept. 17 and 27, in New Mexico towns and cities of Carlsbad, Artesia, Roswell, Hope, Albuquerque, Jal, Hobbs, and in Midland, Texas. Public comments can be submitted online through Nov. 5.

Tay Wiles is a correspondent for High Country News.

Celebrate 50 years of Wild and Scenic with more designations

Everyone has a river story.

A favorite story of mine is when my dad took our family on a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon when I was a teenager, in 1967. At that time, there was a proposal to dam the river in the canyon, flooding it for 27 miles. My father, Stewart, was secretary of the Interior under President Johnson. He said the secretary “should never make armchair judgments on national conservation issues.” He wanted to see the run of the river and canyons for himself. He wanted to “let the canyons speak for themselves.”

The beauty of the canyons and river did speak for themselves. And they convinced my father that the Colorado shouldn’t be dammed. At the end of the trip, he held a press conference and said we're not going to build dams in the Grand Canyon. It's a magnificent place, and we should leave it alone. And that was that.

In New Mexico, we know “agua es vida” -- water is life. New Mexicans depend on our rivers to irrigate our farms, bring water to our cities and villages, support fish and wildlife and recharge our aquifers, and as places to spend time as families to fish, float, and play. Rivers protect water quality and sacred and cultural sites and support local businesses serving recreationists and tourism -- like fly fishing shops, guiding services, commercial rafting, restaurants, and hotels.

October 2 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. We have much to celebrate this year.

The Act took four years to make its way through Congress to President Johnson's desk, but Democrats and Republicans worked together to make it happen. Back then, they understood that our common heritage and our national treasures shouldn’t have a party label.

I couldn’t be prouder that my father helped shepherd this landmark legislation through Congress. He understood the value of rivers and the urgency to protect the most special from dams, diversions, and development. For him, it was about balance, common sense, and leaving a legacy for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.

New Mexicans can be proud that one of the first eight rivers designated under the Act was part of the Rio Grande. That segment flows through the iconic Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Later, sections of the Chama, the Pecos, and the East Fork of the Jemez were designated and now enjoy the protected status as Wild and Scenic Rivers. 

I’ve been proud to carry on my father’s legacy of working in Washington for New Mexico to protect important lands and waters. When it comes to beautiful rivers, New Mexico is lucky. But with that luck, comes responsibility.  

After 50 years, we’ve made some progress, but still only about 1/10 of 1 percent of the approximately 108,014 river miles in New Mexico are protected – only 124 miles.

That is not enough.

I know that many New Mexicans are working to protect the Gila River, to keep it wild and free flowing. The river runs through the Gila Wilderness – the first designated wilderness in our country, in 1924. Its role in New Mexico’s history, economy, and geography can’t be overstated. I appreciate the efforts to build a strong and diverse coalition of people who care about the river and want to keep it the way it is.  It’s vital that people come together to protect it and to assure that it can nourish future generations. I’m excited to see what we can do working together to protect the Gila and our other precious rivers.

We are all the beneficiaries of the vision and determination of people like my father, and we honor them during this anniversary year. But they also challenge us to look forward with renewed commitment, with renewed determination. We owe that to future generations. I hope we leave them a New Mexico where our most special rivers and lands are protected. 

Tom Udall is the senior senator from New Mexico.

New Mexico Wild Rangers Rehabilitate our Wilderness Trails

 20180822 174024 75270
By 'Backpacker Bill' Kemsley

About two weeks ago my wife and I met Wilderness Ranger Atieno Ouma on the Santa Barbara Trail in the Pecos Wilderness.

She is a cheery, young woman with whom we had a friendly chat. We didn't realize it at the time, but Atieno was counting us as "encounters" in her Solitude Monitoring Encounter study.

She left us to continue backpacking five more miles into No Fish Lake, which is nestled beneath the final ascent to the 50-mile Skyline Trail that traverses from peak to peak along the Santa Barbara Divide of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

When Ouma meets up with her partner, Ezra Sage, at No Fish in the wilderness their work will begin in earnest.

First, they will conduct a 10-point evaluation of the campsite's condition.

Second, they'll check to see if evidence exists that users camped within 50 feet of a trail or 300 feet of water. They will look for litter, tree damage, campfire rings, trampled soil compaction, noxious weeds and such.

They will camp there for the night with volunteers who'll come in to help them.

Before leaving in the morning, they'll clean up any trash, disassemble campfire rings and restore the site to a more primitive condition.

They will then hike still deeper into the wilderness to count Solitude Monitoring Encounters with other hikers, clean and maintain trails and find another campsite to rehabilitate.

And she gets paid for hiking. Wow!

Of course, she too is enormously grateful to have this job from June to September.

Ouma and Sage are part of a ranger contingent sent into Northern New Mexico wilderness areas by New Mexico Wild.

New Mexico Wild's work-study project has a four-fold objective:

1. Count the number of encounters with hikers, like me.

2. Assess conditions of trails, campsites and identify invasive species in the interior of each wilderness.

3. Clean up and restore campsites to more primitive conditions.

4. Educate the public about the value of wilderness areas and engage volunteers in wilderness stewardship.

So you see, Atieno accomplished two of these goals in meeting us on the Santa Barbara Trail. She counted us and courteously treated us to a bit of education in the value of federally designated wilderness areas. We appreciated it enough to want to know more.

It was sheer coincidence we met Atieno, for she was not working for the Carson National Forest, but the Santa Fe National Forest.

Since the Santa Fe National Forest was closed due to forest fire risk at the time, she was sent to work in the northern end of the Pecos on the Santa Barbara Trail, which is in the Carson National Fores and was still open at the time. Even though this small section of the Pecos is in the Carson, the Santa Fe National Forest manages it.

Working on wilderness near Taos

Two more of the 10 New Mexico Wild rangers this year, Rhett Spencer and Ben Mortensen, are working in the Wheeler Peak, Latir Peak, Columbine-Hondo and Cruces Basin wildernesses of the Carson National Forest.

I mention these trails because the rangers have even fixed that uber-steep pitch up the last stretch of the Yerba Trail to the ridge. They said that the steep son-of-a-pitch scramble was a huge off-trail mistake, due to trees blowing down and closing off the trail's last switchback route in that section.Spencer and Mortensen are working the wilderness areas in the Carson National Forest nearest Taos. Imagine how extensive the work area is for just those Ski Valley Trails - Yerba, Italiano, Manzanita, Gavilan - all the way up to the Lobo Peak ridge. Add to that the Columbine-Twining Recreational Trail across Gold Hill, and that's just one of the four wilderness areas.

Sounds like a huge job for two rangers. But they have a lot of extra help.

They're attracting dozens of hikers to volunteer for the project, already 83 volunteers this summer.

Not all volunteers, though, need do such heavy lifting. You can volunteer for instance, to take your own wilderness hike to count encounters with other hikers.

Or choose to participate with rangers and volunteers giving talks to groups: students, clubs, any type of gathering.

And here's the one I like. Go for a hike with a ranger. You can be with a ranger for a day.

The New Mexico Wild Partnership

Bjorn Frederikson, of the U.S. Forest Service Regional Office and Tisha Broska of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, put the New Mexico Wild partnership together.

In its trial run last year, they put six rangers into the field with such success that they've increased their efforts this year.

And rangers are already 50 percent more productive than last year's test run. Key measures of their effectiveness are listed in the By the Numbers box.

Both the Forest Service and Wilderness Alliance each pick up half of the funding for the wilderness ranger program. But when rangers recruit volunteers, the dollar value of the volunteers' hours count toward the contribution from New Mexico Wild.

Spencer and Mortensen boasted of having raised over 1,000 hours of volunteer time for their wilderness work. And that exceeded their requirement to raise 600 volunteer hours.

What Is a Designated Wilderness?

The Wilderness Act describes a wilderness as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. It is an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.

All motorized vehicles and tools are banned from these lands. Even bicycles are not allowed. Only foot and horse travel are permitted.

But hikers and horses are having their impact. No place is this more evident than in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, especially around Williams, Horse Shoe and Lost lakes.

It took time and effort to set aside wilderness areas.

I am an old enough geezer to recall returning home from navy combat in World War II to the frantic economic boom trying to catch up after the wartime constraints.

Our transportation system began booming in the 1950s. President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Interstate Highway System meant to tie all 48 lower states together in a network of limited-access highways that we have today.

The boom created concerns for conservationists, particularly federal lands forest rangers. They became increasingly concerned about preserving roadless areas of pristine federal lands.

Forest rangers Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser and Benton MacKay, for example, founded the Wilderness Society to lobby for setting aside still unspoiled lands.

Howard Zahniser wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956. But it took nine more years and 65 rewrites before the 1964 Wilderness Act was finally signed into law.

Those who would like their special interests allowed access to our precious set-aside lands, however, continually threaten wilderness law.

It's partly why the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the Forest Service set up the wilderness ranger program.

Work In the Wilderness Interior

So, the first 2-mile sections of prime trails in the wilderness areas closest to Taos, Wheeler, Latir and Columbine-Hondo, are the most heavily used and hence receive the greatest attention.With such a small staff of rangers assigned by the U.S. Forest Service to care for trails, it is common sense that they've focused the major portion of their working hours on the most heavily used sections of trails even with the aid of volunteers.

Forest Service Ranger Craig Saum, with his summer rangers and volunteers, does a remarkable job of caring for these sections of the 330 miles of trail in the Carson National Forest

But, that leaves a considerable portion of wilderness trails neglected, with some trails even abandoned. The Latir Wilderness has trails that have fallen into complete neglect and are no longer even identified as trails.

The Columbine-Hondo National Recreation Trail is well maintained in the 2-mile entry sections at both ends. But it has had barely any attention on its remaining 10-mile interior section.

Until that is, the New Mexico Wild rangers, with the aid of dozens of volunteers, cleared all the downed trees, rehabilitated the campsites and installed wilderness signs.

How to become a Ranger in 2019

New Mexico Wild will be announcing its needs next March. It will be highly competitive, as you can imagine.

Ouma said she applied for a ranger slot for this year's season as soon as she heard about the program. She had to compete against 90 applicants for a spot. And among those 90 were some repeats who limited the draw, since last year's rangers would naturally have an edge, reducing the opportunity even more.

Email New Mexico Wild This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to apply early in 2019. Or check the website: If you need additional information call New Mexico Wild Deputy Director Tisha Broska at (505) 843-8696.

Senator Heinrich: Gila not appropriate for flyovers

Thursday, August 16, 2018
Gila not appropriate for flyovers
Dear Friend,
I hope you can take a moment to read and share an op-ed I wrote in the Silver City Daily Press about why I am calling on the Air Force not to expand airspace over the Gila Wilderness. I have heard from many concerned citizens about this issue, and I agree with them that military overflights through the Gila are not the right approach.
Please continue to stay in touch with me about this and other issues important to you and your community.
MARTIN HEINRICH United States Senator
 Heinrich Gila overflights letter 8
The Gila is not appropriate for flyovers
By U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich
I am calling on the Air Force not to expand airspace over the Gila and surrounding areas. Especially when there are other more appropriate overflight options, it makes no sense to threaten what makes the Gila so special and unnecessarily create hostility between the public and the military in New Mexico.
Nearly 100 years ago, a forester named Aldo Leopold recognized the beauty and irreplaceable value of an untrammeled area of mountains, rivers, and mesas in southwestern New Mexico. As lands across the West were being broken up by development, roads, and railroads, Leopold proposed that the headwaters of the Gila River should be preserved as the nation's first road-less, unimpeded wilderness. Today, so many of us are grateful for Leopold's foresight.
Some of my best memories are the camping trips I've been able to take with my wife, Julie, and our two sons in wild places like the Gila Wilderness. I have always been drawn to places like the Gila-landscapes where you can get away from the cell phones, computers and everything else that tends to clutter the mind. Backpacking trips into places like McKenna Park and Turkey Feather Pass, the Jerky Mountains and the Gila River canyon have given me the time and space to grow closer to my family and friends and reflect.
From the outset, local residents have expressed steady and firm opposition to the Air Force's proposal for the Gila and have made it abundantly clear that low-level flights and flares in wilderness areas would be disruptive to their way of life, threaten public safety and damage the local economy.
The outdoor recreation opportunities in the Gila are integral to the quality of life and economy of Grant and Catron Counties. Visitors from around the world are drawn to the region's hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and peaceful wilderness. Many local residents-from retirees to young entrepreneurs-choose to live in the area because of its unrivaled natural surroundings. The military would also lose more than it would gain from the proposal. New Mexico already has in place a number of airspace agreements for military aircraft training locations, also known as Military Operation Areas, which have been based on positive and mutually beneficial relationships between the military and the public for over 30 years. Reshaping and expanding the existing airspace agreement over the Gila risks jeopardizing the appropriate balance that has been in place for decades.
Throughout the airspace evaluation, I have urged the Air Force to coordinate with local stakeholders and to address community concerns. If the Air Force listens to those who know New Mexico best, I am confident they will reach the same conclusion I have: that an expansion of airspace over the Gila would be a mistake, and that optimizing airspace elsewhere would enable the Air Force to better train its pilots and ensure the positive relationship with the military in New Mexico endures.
This is about striking the right balance. New Mexico has maintained a good working relationship between the military and the surrounding communities for years by listening to community concerns and making smart decisions. Today, that means recognizing that overflights through the Gila are not the right approach.