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Critics blast BLM decision on Otero Mesa

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press Writer


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—A Roswell company learned Friday that it’s one step closer to being able to drill an exploratory natural gas well on southern New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, but critics are crying foul.

The Bureau of Land Management has approved a final environmental assessment of plans by the Harvey E. Yates Co. of Roswell, known as Heyco, to drill on the mesa.

The BLM has laid out several requirements for Heyco to ensure the company protects the area, but environmentalists and others opposed to oil and gas development on the mesa say the decision is “bad news.”

“Drilling Otero Mesa will not only damage a fragile ecosystem, wildlife habitat and wilderness quality lands, it flies in the face of increasing public support for keeping drilling rigs off of the mesa,” said Deanna Archuleta, southwest regional director of The Wilderness Society. “While local governments such as the city councils of Las Cruces and El Paso have passed resolutions calling for protection of Otero Mesa, the BLM remains stonefaced and seems determined to allow destruction of this beautiful place.”

The mesa is one of the last undisturbed areas of Chihuahuan desert and is home to hundreds of species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds and insects.

The mesa also includes an aquifer that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates may contain as much as 15 million acre-feet of fresh water, which could be tapped to supply communities in southern New Mexico.

With BLM’s approval of Heyco’s drilling permit, the company’s well pad cannot be bigger than 3.7 acres and 1.5 acres of it must be reclaimed once drilling is complete. Heyco must also triple-case its well to protect groundwater and use low-profile tanks.

BLM spokesman Hans Stuart said other provisions are spelled out for certain species of plants and animals, including the northern aplomado falcon.

The environmental assessments states well pads should be as small as possible and any pits should be netted to keep the birds out. Pads and any roads should be located away from nesting sites and surveys should be done during breeding season to determine if falcons are in the area.

Nicole Rosmarino of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians said Friday the proposed well would be in the heart of falcon territory.

“Otero Mesa provides vital and irreplaceable habitat for the endangered aplomado falcon and a rich web of life and shouldn’t be sacrificed to make big oil richer,” she said.

According to the BLM, contractors have conducted falcon surveys in the area for the past several years. Some sightings have occurred in spring 2006 and 2007 but follow-up surveys have not resulted in additional sightings or nesting activity.

Rosmarino argued that Otero Mesa is considered key habitat for the falcon’s recovery and it’s one of the few places in New Mexico where wild falcons are still sighted.

Drilling opponents, including state leaders, also have voiced concerns about the native grasses and plants that could be impacted.

Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Joanna Prukop said Friday that simply reclaiming disturbed areas around a well pad with any seed mix is not good enough.

“We really want restoration and that means you go back in and restore the area, the plant species particularly that are native to the area,” she said. “That’s what our whole concern is, maintaining that Chihuahuan desert ecosystem.”

She added that weather patterns and moisture are also key components to restoration.

“If an area is disturbed and you don’t get any moisture to help with the restoration of the vegetation, then we will still have strong concerns about the delicate nature of the Chihuahuan desert,” she said.

Prukop said the state, which has been critical of BLM’s plans for oil and gas development on Otero Mesa, has developed its own special rules for regulating activity in the area. She said companies like Heyco must still apply to the state for permits to manage their drilling waste and the state Oil Conservation Division can ensure that the mesa is protected.

State: BLM's review of Otero Mesa permit is insufficient

By | The Associated Press

1/14/2008 –

Gov. Bill Richardson and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Joanna Prukop said Monday that an environmental assessment done by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on an application for a permit to drill on Otero Mesa is insufficient.

The state is calling on the BLM to do a full environmental impact statement on the application of Harvey E. Yates Co. The Roswell-based business known as Heyco has proposed putting a natural gas well on land it leases in the area.

Prukop sent a letter Monday to the BLM, saying the state was concerned the agency’s review of Heyco’s application was incomplete and based on outdated information. “The adverse repercussions to the environment are irrecoverable if oil and gas exploration continues without more in-depth study,” Prukop said in a statement.

Richardson called Otero Mesa a “precious area.” “It is critical that every safety measure be taken to protect ground water and native plant and animal species from the activities involved with oil and gas operations,” the governor said.

BLM officials could not immediately be reached for comment Monday evening. A message seeking comment also was left at Heyco’s office in Roswell.

The BLM has proposed opening parts of the 2 million-acre mesa to drilling.

Out of the 2 million acres, a total of 1,589 would be disturbed by drilling practices such as additional roads, well pads and pipelines under the BLM plan. In addition, no more than 5 percent can be disturbed on the grasslands at any specific time.

BLM officials have argued that the agency, in developing its plan for Otero Mesa, went to great lengths to ensure protecting the ecosystem while serving the needs of land-use parties.

Otero Mesa has one of the last undisturbed areas of Chihuahuan Desert and the nation’s largest contiguous patch of black gramma grass, which takes decades to re-establish. It also is home to hundreds of species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds and insects.

Critics have claimed the BLM failed to properly evaluate whether building roads, pipelines, well pads and other structures would damage the area’s ecosystem.

Prukop continued to raise those arguments in the eight-page letter she sent Monday to John Besse, head of the BLM office in Las Cruces.

She wrote that the environmental assessment done on Heyco’s application for a drilling permit focused on only one well. She contends the BLM also should have addressed what she called “the reasonably foreseeable large number of wells” that will likely be drilled on Otero Mesa.

She also complained the assessment did not contemplate what the production of the Heyco well — and the production of any future wells — would mean for the environment. Specifically, she said the BLM should have adequately addressed what impact pipelines and roads would have on the mesa.

Prukop also brought up the water below the mesa, saying the aquifer is believed to contain about 15 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, can meet the annual water needs of one to two U.S. households.

Data being collected about soil in the region indicates the aquifer could be vulnerable to surface contaminates, she said.

“Given the amount of oil and gas development that is being planned for this geographic area and the amount of disturbance that the proposed development would entail, the movement of surface contaminants to the aquifer below a significant concern and warrants additional investigation and evaluation,” Prukop wrote.

Wilderness designation still best way to protect lands

Las Cruces Sun-News
Sunday, March 23, 2008

organ mountains

In May of last year, this newspaper took an editorial stand in support of a federal wilderness designation for some of the most pristine and picturesque areas of our county — most now designated as wilderness study areas.

Much has happened since then, including the creation of a new group calling itself “People for Preserving our Western Heritage,” which was formed to represent the interests of ranching families in the area. That group has devised its own proposal intended to protect the land from development, while at the same time allowing for greater access than a federal wilderness designation might allow.

None of these new developments have convinced us that our original position was in error. We still believe that a wilderness designation is the most effective way to preserve these natural treasures for future generations. And, we believe many of the concerns expressed by ranchers can be mitigated working within the existing process.

The ranchers are seeking new designations that would be called “Special Preservation Areas” and “Rangeland Preservation Areas.” While we commend them for trying to find an innovative solution to the problem, we have serious doubts as to the willingness of politicians in Washington D.C. to create new federal designations just for us.

And, even if they were able to get a bill passed, we don’t believe it would provide the same level of protection or opportunity that a wilderness designation would.

We agree with Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, who has the Sandia Wilderness area near his community, and described wilderness designation as “the gold standard for protection of wild areas.”

We recognize that many ranching families in the eastern part of the county still harbor bitterness toward the federal government for the displacement of ranches in the 1950s to make way for the White Sands Missile Range. Beyond that, it’s probably safe to say that most ranchers are an independent lot who want as little interaction with the government as possible.

That’s not to suggest their concerns are invalid. We recognize that ranchers need to be able to get to cattle, stock tanks, fences and other critical infrastructure. But, we also recognize that the wilderness designation allows for the negotiation of those access issues.

Ultimately, we believe ranchers would be better off working within the existing system to ensure the access they need than attempting to devise new designations that do not now exist.

All of us want to protect these lands for future generations. We believe a federal wilderness designation is the most sure way to achieve that goal.

Migratory Birds

Are Migratory Birds at Risk?

By Stephen Capra

migatory birds

The big news these days is the fear of Avian flu. President Bush has earmarked billions of dollars to make sure America is protected. Though a virulent form of the flu has yet to be found in the Western Hemisphere, some Americas are already panicking. Some people are no longer willing to hang their bird feeders for fear of transmit­ting disease. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently issued a press release letting people know it was safe to go bird watching.

The reality is that most birds (peregrine falcons, shorebirds, ducks, tundra swans, loons, long-billed dowitchers and terns) tend to migrate over large areas and if there is one central location for this migration, it is Alaska. This makes Alaska the logical entry point for the deadly strain of avian flu known as H5N1. If you have ever spent time in Alaska, traveled to Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge you would have witnessed the spectacle of millions of birds that come from many parts of the world converging in these mas­sive migratory birds2refuges. Should the flu enter Alaska via Asian migratory birds and spread amongst the breeding populations, it will then be car­ried effectively worldwide. Another potential drop-off point might well be Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge or Bosque Del Apache here in New Mexico, as birds migrate down from the north.

While the large-scale risk to humans remains theoretical, the flu has already impacted bird spe­cies. In May, a single outbreak in China killed a tenth of the world’s bar-headed geese and last month the United Nations task force iden­tified three dozen species of rare Eurasian birds at risk. Where the real problem comes in is the gov­ernment and citizens knee-jerk reaction to confuse wild birds with the poultry production birds typical to Asia, that have been the source of this outbreak. There is concern that there will be an attempt at a mass culling of species and the destruction of habitat, under the guise of protecting public health. Stay tuned.