Sabinoso Wilderness – Victory!

For Immediate Release

Date: March 24, 2009

Victory! Sabinoso became Wilderness on March 24, 2009 when President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009.

sabinosoArea Description

Rising 1,110 feet from the surrounding plains, the Sabinoso unit sits upon the Canadian Escarpment, which is composed mostly of the Jurassic Morrison Formation and Triassic Chinle Shale. Cretaceous Dakota Sandstone caps these formations and creates colorful cliffs at the top of the long, deep canyons of the area. Fairly dense pinyon-juniper woodlands dominate the landscape, and ponderosa pines mix with riparian vegetation along many of the canyon bottoms and grow in isolated stands on the mesa tops. The dominant feature in the unit is the 1,000-foot-deep Cañon Largo, which connects to the Canadian River just outside the unit. Cañon Olguin, Cañon Silva, Cañon Muerto, Cañon Vivian, and Cañon Agapito feed rainfall and snowmelt from most of the unit into Cañon Largo, while Lagartija Creek drains the southern portion of the unit. Elevations in the unit range from 4,520 feet to 6,150 feet.

Ecological Values

The primary vegetation type of the unit is pinyon-juniper forest. Ponderosa pines grow in the riparian zones and in isolated stands on the mesa tops. Cottonwood and willow trees form part of the riparian vegetation in the canyon bottoms, and under-story plants here include wavyleaf and shinnery oak, mountain mahogany, netleaf hackberry, skunkbush sumac, and Navajo tea. Grasses in the unit include black, sideoats, blue, and hairy grama; galleta; little bluestem; wolftail; Indian rice grass; and vine mesquite. The unit’s diversity of habitats, from forests to cliffs to riparian bottomlands, support a wide variety of birds including red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, western scrub-jay, pine siskin, juniper titmouse, mourning dove, lesser goldfinch, savannah sparrow, chipping sparrow, mountain chickadee, Bewick’s wren, broad-tailed hummingbird, white-breasted nuthatch, pinion jay, Virginia warbler, hairy woodpecker, white-throated swift, gray flycatcher, bushtit, and turkey vulture. Wildlife in the area includes coyote, mule deer, bobcat, gray fox, ground squirrel, racer snake, and a variety of frogs and butterflies in the riparian zones.

Scenic and Recreational Qualities

Exceptional scenery within the unit includes the sharp contrast of densely vegetated mesas with many rocky canyons. These canyons cut up to 1,000 feet into the sandstone rock and are stained buff, red and tan over the millennia by various oxides. Extended seasons of flowing water, even in fairly dry years, and incredibly broad vistas across the eastern plains add to the unit’s scenic appeal. Outstanding recreational opportunities in the area include hunting, hiking, geological study, horseback riding, and landscape photography.

Cultural Values

Cultural resources in the unit are unknown because systematical surveys have not been done in the area. Nevertheless, the archaeological record of northeastern New Mexico suggests that a high density of cultural resources will be found in the unit ranging from prehistoric Paleo-Indian campsites through historic homestead sites.

Access Information

There currently is no public access to the Sabinoso unit. The only way to access the area is to make arrangements with the Taos District BLM. The office is making efforts to purchase land and right-of-ways to gain public access to the area. You can contact the Taos BLM at (505) 758-8851. The USGS 7.5 minute maps that cover this complex include Maes, Sabinoso, Canon Olguin, and San Ramon.

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.

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.