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.

New Mexico's U.S. senators seek hearing on mining laws

By Steve Terrell | Santa Fe New Mexican
June 12, 2019

New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are calling for a U.S. Senate committee hearing on a bill aimed at updating laws governing mining that have been unchanged for nearly 150 years.

Their effort comes at a time when an Australian mining company is planning to to conduct exploratory drilling on Santa Fe National Forest land near Tererro, north of Pecos.

The bill Heinrich and Udall are sponsoring would introduce a new royalty rate of 5 percent to 8 percent that would put hard-rock mining on the same level as other mining industries — requiring companies to fund cleanup of their abandoned mines, obtain permits for noncasual mining operations on federal land, allow for the petition of the secretary of the interior to withdraw lands from mining, and force a review of areas that may be unsafe or inappropriate for mining.

“Mining companies, both foreign and domestic, are governed today by a law that has changed little since the actual California gold rush that gave rise to the act in the first place,” the senators said in a news release Wednesday. “America’s mining laws have remained relatively untouched since they were established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. This antiquated system puts most public lands at constant risk of new mining, lets industry off the hook for toxic mine cleanup, and robs the American people of royalties from mining.”

The mining industry opposes such measures. In response to a similar bill in the U.S. House, the American Exploration & Mining Association last month called the legislation “a disaster in the making for the domestic mining industry and for America.”

In a news release, the organization said such legislation “would substantially chill private-sector investment in exploring for and developing minerals on federal land and dramatically increase our already extensive reliance on foreign sources of minerals.”

The senators said the bill would protect taxpayers in the event of another toxic spill like the Gold King Mine disaster that polluted waterways in the Four Corners region in 2015.

Because of the current federal law, taxpayers have had to foot the bill for the billions of dollars in cleanup costs at abandoned hard-rock mines, which Udall and Heinrich said have polluted 40 percent of the headwaters at Western watersheds.

There is a long history of hard-rock mining corporations operating on federal public lands in New Mexico. Currently, there are dozens of active mines either in operation or in the process of getting cleaned up.

Other senators signing the letter to the leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee included Democratic presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

New World Cobalt already has staked a claim to publicly owned minerals and wants to drill core samples in a search for metal deposits on just over 2 acres in an area that has a history of mining but is part of a forested canyon long popular for recreation.

Though lead and zinc operations closed in 1939, it took decades and millions of dollars to clean up a waste pile left by the Tererro Mine and nearby El Molino mill, where mined rock was processed.

Asked about New World Cobalt’s proposal, Udall spokeswoman Annie Orloff said, “It is a perfect example of the overall problem with our mining laws: We have an Australian company proposing to come in and mine U.S. public land in a treasured outdoor recreation area without paying any royalties, while taxpayers are still facing a multibillion-dollar liability for cleanup of abandoned mines from the past 140-plus years.”

Heinrich spokeswoman Whitney Potter said Heinrich “does not think this is an appropriate place for a mine, especially because it’s a high-use recreation area and because of the threat to water quality.”

Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild, said the pro-environment organization has requested the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department hold a public hearing on the Tererro proposal.

“It is difficult at times for communities to appreciate the need to protect certain public lands when there is no imminent threat,” he said in an email. “… We want to convene a community meeting soon to try to get people as much information as possible and to hear their concerns and questions.”

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Chaco legislation clears US House committee

July 18, 2019
KOB-TV (via the Associated Press) 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Federal legislation aimed at limiting oil and gas development near a national park in New Mexico held sacred by Native Americans has been endorsed by a key congressional committee.

The House natural resources panel on Wednesday approved the Democrat-sponsored bill. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.

Tribes and environmentalists have been advocating for more protections beyond the boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, saying the region is full of culturally significant sites.

The legislation would permanently ban drilling on federal land within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the park.

Most of the land surrounding the park belongs to the Navajo Nation or individual Navajo allotment owners. While top Navajo officials support cultural preservation, they have stopped short of asking for a drilling ban because development in the region nets substantial revenue.

This article orinally appeared on via the Associated Press.

Taxpayers shafted under antiquated mining law

By Santa Fe New Mexican Editorial Board
June 10, 2019

The news that an American subsidiary of an Australian company is planning to conduct mineral exploration in the Santa Fe National Forest near Terrero is setting off alarm bells among outdoors lovers and environmentalists alike.

To many, the wild lands around Pecos — with fishing, hiking, camping and hunting — are incompatible with the work of extracting minerals from the ground. Then, too, the Pecos area’s history with the mining industry, including a legacy of pollution and expensive cleanups, is hardly one to make residents comfortable with the process.

However, as Santa Fe National Forest officials point out, the federal government can do little to stop companies that want to profit from mining on public lands. Under the amended General Mining Act of 1872, companies have freedom to search for minerals. Forest officials can require companies to protect resources, but the antiquated mining act does not allow land managers to prohibit the exploration or development of mineral resources. If gold or zinc or copper is on public lands, companies have the right to search and extract.

What Comexico LLC, the American subsidiary of New World Cobalt, wants to do is explore previously identified mineral deposits in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District. Comexico also has filed its exploration permit application to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. The applications propose core drilling near Jones Hill, close to Terrero, in hopes of identifying base and precious metal deposits for mining.

Because the company’s plan states that exploration will not disturb the surface, the operation won’t even require analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. Core drilling activities as outlined in the company’s plan of operations, however, would require some analysis under the act depending on the scope of operations and how greatly it would disturb soil, plants, water, air or wild animals. The drilling operation should affect about 2.2 acres, according to the company’s public notice. Despite that public notice, the public has little say in what happens next.

The 1872 act needs to be rewritten so that local communities and stakeholders have more say about what happens in their backyards — after all, it was President Ulysses Grant who signed the first piece of legislation regulating hard rock mining. It’s time for an update.

The Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2019 was introduced last month to reform the 1872 law, including the introduction of a modern leasing system. Sen. Tom Udall is a sponsor of the bill in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona has introduced the House bill.

Among other things, the new legislation would allow land managers to weigh other uses for public lands — hard rock mining would not be the default best use, but recreation, hunting, fishing and conservation could be considered. The legislation would start a “polluters pay” dedicated fund to clean up abandoned hard rock mines on public lands, provide better protection for national monuments, parks, roadless areas and other natural heritage sites and, importantly, make sure the U.S. Treasury is better compensated for minerals taken from public lands. Right now, oil and coal companies pay royalties, but hard rock mining companies use public lands for free.

The old mining law makes it easy for foreign companies to extract resources, take their profits and leave U.S. taxpayers holding the bag. Right now, there’s little way to stop exploration and drilling in the Santa Fe National Forest — even if mining is not the best use of the area. For that to change, Congress must pass legislation that protects both our public lands and our pocketbooks.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.