September 25, 2013
By Dianne Stallings
When a package arrived from Jesse Juen, New Mexico director of the Bureau of Land Management, the students in teacher Rudy Barbosa’s fifth-grade class gathered around as he opened it, eager to see what was tucked inside its folds.
“The box was filled with 25 homemade cookies that Jesse Juen himself made in his kitchen,” said Styve Homnick, the man who brought the director and the students together a week earlier to create an opportunity for the young Otero Mesa preservation supporters to share their thoughts with the director.
“It came with a very caring card that encouraged them to keep on their path to preserve their ancestral homelands,” Homnick said.
He explained that Barbosa taught one of two fifth-grade classes in the Mescalero Apache School District. Each class had about 25 students.
“Four kids, two boys and two girls, stood up in front of Jesse and stated their cases, then he was presented with a medicine bag with pollen, turquoise and tobacco, and a big poster the kids made,” Homnick said. “Each drew a picture, and in large letters it said ‘Protect Otero Mesa.’ A girl stood up and recited a prayer in Apache and two boys read letters they wrote to President (Barack) Obama.”
Homnick said Juen appeared moved and he shared his feelings of support for them. Bill Childress, the BLM director who oversees Otero Mesa from the Las Cruces field office, also was there and received a medicine bag and poster about protecting Alamo Mountain, a sacred site, Homnick said. The poster was drawn by the girl who recited the Apache prayer.After numerous meetings with BLM officials, Homnick, who heads a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting the mesa, said he now is convinced the best approach is National Conservation Area status.
“This would preserve a relatively small portion of the mesa that contains a rare eco-region and give it a buffer zone without the commercializing that a national monument would invoke,” Homnick said. “I made it clear to BLM officials that I changed my previous position and would fight along with them for NCA designation. I am convinced this is the most reasonable way the mesa’s unique abundance of wildlife and cultural history will be given the protection it deserves. The bird watchers still will be able to go birding, plus, ranchers with more knowledge of what a national conservation area is in relationship to grazing rights, will be relieved.”
He also said he would focus on working with supporters among the Mescalero Apache to obtain Sacred Site status for Alamo Mountain, Homnick said.
“The heart of my quest is based on my new realizations about the importance of protecting Alamo Mountain from harm’s way,” he said. “That mountain is in a very vulnerable spot and has much more to it than people realize. I came to my conclusions after numerous negative experiences taking non-tribal member groups there for viewing.”
Some of those negative experiences included outsiders wearing hiking boots and digging in their heels on low-lying petroglyphs trying to photograph ones higher, he said. “A few months earlier, a medicine woman told young tribal kids never to touch the petroglyphs,” he said.
Other people have chipped off petroglyphs in the dark of night. Homnick said he no longer will share the location of the mountain’s secrets with nontribal members.
“Over the last year, I realized that the traditional foods of the Apache, such as ‘Indian bananas’ are very hard to find, but grow in abundance on the mountain,” he said. “The place is the heart of Apacheria. It was a remote and mystical cathedral and safe haven when (the bands) were intruded upon by foreign invaders. It harbored one of the only two springs for millions of acres. Once the Mescalero were removed from the mesa, its legend was lost over time. I began to see that after my 45-year friendship with so many tribal members and their children’s need to experience ‘hands-on’ Apache life, that Sacred Site status is essential.”
With its rediscovery, many tribal members now go there and pray, he said.
While a national monument would bring roads, cell phones and marked pathways, a national conservation area preserves quietly, he said.
“I had to put a huge amount of time and energy into convincing my cohorts, the environmental groups and the Citizens for Otero Mesa to see my point and support it,” Homnick said.
But some members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have taken a view that protection must be balanced with economic interests. The most recent observations came from U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce during an interview while the Republican was on the August break from Congress.
“We should be drilling it with the agreement that protects the (cultural, wildlife and landscape) resources and still allows us to get to our natural resources,” he said. “We’ve been constant on that since 2002. It would be an economic boom to this areas. In Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties, a couple have as strong an economy as anywhere in the country, especially anywhere in the state.”
The BLM seven years ago came up with a (resource management) plan that would leave 95 percent of the mesa untouched, the congressman said. “That’s really reasonable. And of the 5 percent, you only really touch half of that. You’re talking about 2 percent to 3 percent of the footprint of the entire mesa. The idea that they should shut down resource production to preserve every single ounce is just one that I think most Americans think is extreme. We need to drive cars. We need to heat our homes and we need resources. Let’s not be one dimensional, not total business, not total environment, but the two balanced together. Ninety-five to five to me is really a fair split. Then (former governor Bill) Richardson brought the lawsuit and stopped it cold.”
As for cultural concerns, Pearce said laws already exist to protect traditional and cultural properties.
“Every piece of New Mexico was walked on by Indians at one point,” he said. “If we’re going to do it, we need to do it all the way. Ruidoso shouldn’t be here, if we’re going to go to the extreme. My point with Native Americans is that I am respectful, You show me what was sacred ground and why.”
He took a hard stance against allowing coal mining that might have damaged a lake used by Native Americans for their salt extraction, incurring the wrath of a former Republican state lands commissioner, Pearce said.
“But I am not willing just because somebody says we walked on those grounds at some point,” he said. “I walk around in the desert as much as anybody and you find campsites everywhere. At some point, Geronimo swept across this region and they could cover 50 miles a day on foot. So there is a law that protects it. There is a discussion to be had, but you can’t just say everything is off limits.”
He contended that if production fields were developed on the mesa in Otero County that the Ruidoso would be the residence of choice for many of the workers.
“Some would live in Alamogordo, but a lot of people would choose the quality of living up here and drive down there everyday,” Pearce said. “In oil fields, it is not unusual to drive 95 miles out of Hobbs.”
He’s concerned that a National Conservation Area designation would stop all development, Pearce said.
“I think that is an extreme viewpoint that can’t be sustained,” he said. “We could be energy independent now, if the government were allowing offshore and production zone already drilled in the Rocky Mountains. This whole boom in technology is creating access to resources that we haven’t been able to harness before, One find in Carlsbad is more than all the oil taken out of New Mexico in our entire history.
A new three dimensional imaging seismic instrument and the ability to drill down and then out horizontally up to seven miles reduces the number of wells needed, he said.
“So the footprint is getting much smaller and the technology on casings, which was pretty good already, is better; and the cement technology to keep groundwater contamination from occurring,”
He doesn’t agree that every site has to be locked up, he said, adding, “By the way, it is usually locked up from people with disabilities, anybody who needs to drive. Many of these places are accessible only to backpackers and hikers and that’s a very small percentage of the population. So that’s just one way of shutting down the resource and I think it is extreme.”