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By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN / Associated Press
Posted: 02/23/2011 11:04:01 AM MST

ALBUQUERQUE – The rolling hills and grasslands of southern New Mexico’s Otero Mesa have served as a battleground for environmentalists and the oil and natural gas industry for the past decade, and now a dozen new mining claims in the area have sparked concern among a coalition of environmental groups.

Denver-based Geovic Mining Corp. has staked more than 50 20-acre claims in the hope of finding sources of zirconium and rare earth minerals. However, Geovic is still in the early stages of analyzing rock samples collected from the surface, a company official said.

“We think the area where we staked these claims at least has the potential to have interesting quantities of those minerals, but we have a long way to go before we could even begin to think about any kind of project there,” Jack Sherborne, head of the company’s new ventures division, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Home to hundreds of species of plants, animals and insects, Otero Mesa is the largest publicly owned expanse of undisturbed Chihuahuan desert grassland in the United States. A portion of the mesa is designated as an area of critical environmental concern, and former Gov. Bill Richardson and environmentalists have pushed in recent years for federal protection of the mesa as a national monument.

Environmentalists consider mining as a “volatile threat” to Otero Mesa, and the mining claims have resulted in a renewed call for protecting the area. “Without the permanent protection that it deserves, Otero Mesa is always going to be one drill bit, one mine shaft or one spill away from being lost to us,” said Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

Newcomer said he was hiking on Otero Mesa around Deer and Wind mountains last month and spotted one of Geovic’s claim stakes.

The concern, Newcomer said, is that hard rock mining is governed by the 1872 Mining Act, which gives mining preference over other uses on much of the nation’s public land. The law has changed little since first adopted, and critics have argued it is outdated and was never intended for the mining operations that tie up large parcels of federal land in the West without paying fair market value.

“Even with the problems we have environmentally with oil and gas, they pay their fair share when it comes to leasing rights and mineral rights and royalties. The hard rock mining industry does not because of the old law,” said John Cornell of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen’s group that supports protecting Otero Mesa.

The environmental groups also are concerned that mining on the mesa could change the landscape by altering wildlife habitat, soil composition and underground aquifers.

Bureau of Land Management officials in southern New Mexico said Geovic would have to meet specific standards depending on the work it intends to do. If more than 5 acres are to be disturbed on any one of the claims, the company would have to submit a mine operation plan.

The company would also have to apply for a state mining permit. That process involves public notification and allows for appeals and court action. The BLM is also working on an updated version of its resource management plan for the region that includes Otero Mesa, and officials said alternatives for expanding protections for environmentally sensitive areas could ultimately impact the activities that are allowed in the area. The plan is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Interest in finding domestic sources of rare earth minerals has steadily increased over the past year, but the previous battles over Otero Mesa are not lost on Geovic.

“It’s clear there are a lot of people who are concerned about it,” Sherborne said. “We always try to address the things that we do in a responsible manner and of course as we find out more about trying to work in that particular area, if there are things that are just not possible to do, then of course we won’t do them.”

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