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El Rio Grande del Norte Bill Introduced

WASHINGTON, D.C.—On April 23rd, 2009, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced legislation that would protect over 300,000 acres of wild public land in northern New Mexico. The bill is cosponsored by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM).

plains west of ute mt 215x300The “El Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act” would protect approximately 235,980 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land by designating a combination of “conservation” and “wilderness” areas.

“This is a great time for wilderness in New Mexico,” said Nathan Newcomer, Associate Director with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “Senator Bingaman’s legislation comes on the heels of the newly designated Sabinoso Wilderness, and as the birthplace of wilderness, New Mexicans should be proud that our congressional leaders are actively preserving our natural heritage.”

Creation of the National Conservation Area and Wilderness areas would give local communities a natural attraction and resource to use as part of a long-term sustainable economic development plan.

“These are some of the most spectacular lands in all of New Mexico,” said John Olivas, Northern Director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “This legislation will ensure that we are protecting the hunting and fishing opportunities for New Mexico sportsmen as well as preserving a special place for our children.”

The area is also the Rio Grande Migratory Flyway – one of the great migratory routes in the world. Eagles, falcons and hawks make the basalt walls of the Gorge their nesting homes. Ospreys, scaups, hummingbirds, herons, avocets, merlins and willits all traverse the Gorge.

This substantial chunk of wild land is bounded by the Gorge Rim on the east and Highway 285 on the west. The northern portion spills over 285, encompassing the broad, gently rolling grass and sage brush plains of the Rio San Antonio Gorge, bisected by yet another gorge where raptors nest in 200-foot high lava walls and conifers clamber down to the Rio los Pinos. Perhaps the crown jewel of this whole area is Ute Mountain, a 10,093 foot high volcanic cone rising nearly 3,000 feet above the surrounding plain.

Descendants of the land grantees run cattle all along the Gorge and out into the table-lands between the rim and Highway 285.

Congress Passes Bill That Protects Sabinoso

Measure Protects 2nd Wilderness Area in New Mexico in Last 20 Years

Washington, D.C.—The United States House of Representatives today passed by a vote of 285 to 140,  legislation to protect the Sabinoso Wilderness Area, as part of a large public lands bill. At 16,000 acres, Sabinoso is one of the finest intact Great-Plains ecosystems left in New Mexico and is home to a variety of wildlife, including American kestrel, savannah sparrow, red-tailed hawk, bobcats, mountain lions, mule deer, gray foxes, and an assortment of frogs and butterflies in the riparian areas.  It lies just 40 miles east of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

“Today is a great day for all New Mexicans,” said Nathan Newcomer, Associate Director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “Many local people in the area have been working for years with our congressional delegation to permanently protect the Sabinoso Wilderness Area, and today we can celebrate this important victory.  We commend Senator Tom Udall for introducing this conservation measure as a member of the House, and for his long commitment and leadership in protecting our irreplaceable natural treasures.”  

The bill now goes to President Obama’s desk for his signature. Newcomer praised the House and Senate leadership for moving this important bill early in the session. “It sends a strong signal to the conservation community that Congress took up this lands package as one of its first pieces of business.”

In addition to designating wilderness in Sabinoso, the lands bill will protect wild land in eight other states, including Colorado, Utah, California and Virginia – more than 2 million acres in all. 

A series of high, narrow mesas surrounded by steep, rock-walled canyons in the Sabinoso area provides a striking contrast to the nearby rolling prairie. The Canadian River runs through the northeast corner of the Sabinoso Wilderness Study Area, which feeds into many other streams. Ponderosa pine, Cottonwood, and willows can be found along the many stream sides.

Several resolutions in support of protecting Sabinoso have come from the San Miguel County Commission, the City of Las Vegas, the regional economic development group, and local ranchers. 

According to the New Mexico Department of Tourism, the outdoor tourism industry in 2005 generated over $5 billion dollars to the state economy. Additionally, a 2004 study conducted by the nonprofit Sonoran Institute found that communities adjacent to protected public lands, including wilderness, are those with the fastest economic growth rates.

“Part of what makes New Mexico the true land of enchantment is our wealth of spectacular and varied landscapes that provide special places for solitude, hunting and hiking, and so many other recreational opportunities.  Our wild places contribute so much to our quality of life, and in these times of uncertainty, it is great to know that once the president signs this omnibus bill into law, Sabinoso will stay forever as it is – for our children and grandchildren,” added Newcomer.

Otero Mesa Victory!

For Immediate Release

On April 27, 2009 the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision invalidating the Bureau of Land Management’s oil and gas drilling plan for New Mexico’s Otero Mesa. The court ruled that the BLM’s original Resource Management Plan Amendment, which opened the vast majority of Otero Mesa to oil and gas leasing and limited protection for the desert grasslands, was fatally flawed due to its failure to consider protection for Otero Mesa and the Salt Basin Aquifer.

The court ruled that the BLM had to consider an alternative that closed Otero Mesa to oil and gas leasing, admonishing the agency that “[d]evelopment is a possible use, which BLM must weigh against other possible uses—including conservation to protect environmental values, which are best assessed through the NEPA process.”

“Today’s court ruling underscores what has been at the heart of the Otero Mesa debate for the past eight years,” said Nathan Newcomer, Associate Director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “The BLM made oil and gas development in Otero Mesa the number one priority over the values of wilderness, wildlife and water, and it’s time now for the agency to own up to its responsibilities and do what is right for this special place.” The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has inventoried Otero Mesa and found more than 500,000 acres suitable for wilderness designation.

The court went on to write that, “applying the rule of reason, we [the court] agree with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance that analysis of an alternative closing the Mesa to development is compelled.”

The court also rejected the BLM’s position that there were no significant risks to the Salt Basin Aquifer, which contains millions of acre-feet of potable water, from oil and gas, noting that the agency had not reviewed “relevant data” and characterized the information included in the agency’s own documentation as “point[ing] uniformly in the opposite direction from the agency’s determination, we cannot defer to that determination.”

Further, the court required the BLM to thoroughly examine the potential destruction of fragile desert grasslands from its proposed management approach, which was not included in the original draft provided to the public. In dismissing the agency’s claim that wildlife habitat would not be affected by a complete change in approach, the court analogized the BLM’s approach as claiming “that analyzing the likely impacts of building a dirt road along the edge of an ecosystem excuses an agency from analyzing the impacts of building a four-lane highway straight down the middle, simply because the type of impact—habitat disturbance—is the same under either scenario.”

“The BLM cannot simply decide to risk the utter destruction of irreplaceable resources like Otero Mesa and ignore public and scientific concerns,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel with The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “The 10th Circuit has sent a clear message to the BLM that the agency must protect all of our natural resources and ensure that any decisions are based on actual facts and science.”

The ruling came in connection with a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation organizations led by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and a lawsuit filed by the State of New Mexico.

New Study says Otero Mesa drilling would bring few economic benefits to New Mexico or Otero County

For Immediate Release

otero3 300x204A new study by an independent research organization says that proposed energy development by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Otero Mesa would provide few economic benefits to Otero County, and that preserving this wild grassland would be a wiser investment for local communities.

The Headwaters Economics study shows that the limited economic benefits of drilling won’t even cover the county’s share of infrastructure and services costs related to drilling, with even the most favorable projections peaking at just over 1 percent of Otero County’s revenue from 2007 and making even less of a contribution for most years. And, the number of new jobs created would be small, only about 1 percent of all county employment over four years.

Other economic sectors could be harmed, too, such as the travel and tourism industries, which account for about 6 percent of Otero County’s current employment.

The report concludes that drilling Otero Mesa would create few economic and fiscal benefits, while potentially foreclosing future economic opportunities.

Advocates for protection of Otero Mesa’s natural attributes said the study provides a powerful economic argument for safeguarding the area. “This report confirms that Otero Mesa is worth more alive than dead,” said Kevin Bixby, Executive Director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces. “The choice is clear. If we drill, we risk destroying this special area and get little in return. Congress needs to act to protect this national treasure now.”

“Oil and gas drilling in Otero Mesa will not have any significant benefits for the local economy, and in fact, it would be much wiser to preserve this wild and beautiful grassland.” said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center.

In 2005, the BLM opened more than 90 percent of federal lands in the 1.2 million acre greater Otero Mesa ecosystem to oil and gas development, but so far development has been limited. A growing number of organizations have joined conservationists and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in calling for permanent protection of Otero Mesa to protect its wildlife, water, wilderness qualities, cultural and historic sites. Resolutions of support have been generated by the City of El Paso, County of El Paso, City of Las Cruces, Isleta del Sur Pueblo, NM Archaeological Council, the Catholic Bishops of Las Cruces and El Paso, and hundreds of businesses and individuals in southern New Mexico.

“This report reiterates what we’ve been saying all along: Neither Otero County nor New Mexicans who come here to experience this unique landscape have much to gain from drilling Otero Mesa,” said Nathan Newcomer, Associate Director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “The diverse coalition working to protect Otero Mesa just shows how important it is to so many New Mexicans and in so many ways.”

Otero Mesa is one of the largest remaining intact desert grasslands in North America, and home to a wide variety of grassland-dependent wildlife, including a unique desert-adapted lineage of pronghorn, prairie dogs, kit foxes, and many grassland bird species, including many that are declining elsewhere. It also contains numerous Native American sacred and cultural sites, and a Butterfield stagecoach station. And it sits atop the largely untapped Salt Basin aquifer, which contains an estimated 57 million acre feet of water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The report is the eighth in Headwaters Economics’ Energy and the West series, which outlines the impacts of energy development in several Western states and counties. The full report can be found online at www.headwaterseconomics.org.