Opinion: Saving Otero Mesa is Important to All
November 12, 2010
by Karyn Stockdale, Vice President and Executive Director, Audubon New Mexico
From the Santa Fe New Mexican
Recently, Gov. Bill Richardson sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling for a national-monument declaration for Otero Mesa. The letter follows on a groundswell of support from local communities to protect this unique ecosystem. Birdwatchers from around the state will be anxiously watching the administration in hopes that one of their favorite birding spots will be permanently protected.
About 40 miles northeast of El Paso, the greater Otero Mesa ecosystem includes about 1.2 million acres in Southern New Mexico. This unique landscape is essential to birds for breeding, wintering and migrating, and has been designated by the National Audubon Society’s New Mexico Office, in partnership with Bird Life International, as an Important Bird Area. The IBA Program was created as a global effort to identify and conserve areas that are vital to birds and biodiversity. By working with diverse groups throughout New Mexico, including Audubon chapters, landowners, public agencies, community groups and nonprofits, Audubon endeavors ensure that IBAs are properly managed and conserved.
Otero Mesa represents one of New Mexico’s top 10 most important IBAs as it is the largest and wildest Chihuahuan Desert grassland remaining on public lands in the United States. The mesa is home to more than 200 species of migratory songbirds, provides important breeding grounds for burrowing owls and is prime habitat for the endangered aplomado falcon. It contains critical wintering and migration habitat for Baird’s sparrow and Sprague’s pipit, which are among species whose entire populations are limited and declining.
But the grasslands of Otero provide more than just critical habitat for birds and other wildlife; they also represent an important economic asset to local communities and the state at large. Each year, New Mexico’s fish, wildlife and habitats contribute $3.8 billion to the state through hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. These activities sustain 47,000 jobs (more than farming and forestry combined) and generate more than $184 million in yearly sales tax revenue.
In a recent study done by Headwaters Economics for Audubon New Mexico, it was found that investments in conservation and restoration in Southern New Mexico will provide multiple returns, including increased employment and revenue related to tourism, already New Mexico’s second largest industry, and bringing more than $5.7 billion to the state annually — while promoting long-term economic growth and development in the region that extends far beyond travel and recreation.
The value of New Mexico’s natural amenities and recreation opportunities lies not only in their ability to draw tourists but also in their ability to attract and retain people, entrepreneurs, their businesses and the growing number of retirees who move here for quality-of-life reasons. Business surveys consistently have identified natural amenities and recreation opportunities as key factors determining where entrepreneurs and retirees choose to live. Furthermore, published research has shown that, nationwide, protected natural amenities, such as pristine scenery and wildlife-help sustain property values and attract new investment.
Otero Mesa’s real value lies not on what we can extract from it, but in protecting the uniqueness of its landscape. In today’s difficult economic times, Southern New Mexico’s natural beauty and amenities present a significant competitive advantage compared to other regions.
New Mexicans and tourists from around the country are fortunate to be able to visit Otero Mesa for birdwatching, wildlife watching, hunting and more.
But today there is no guarantee that years from now it will be the same. As the state office of the National Audubon Society, Audubon New Mexico’s mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds and other wildlife and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the Earth’s biological diversity. Audubon New Mexico is part of the Coalition to Protect Otero Mesa. See www.oteromesa.org for more details.
Karyn Stockdale is vice president and executive director of Audubon New Mexico. She lives in Santa Fe.