Keeping Out of the Otero Mesa

The New York Times

EDITORIAL

February 4, 2005

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management signed a decision to allow new oil and gas leasing on some of the most important and most fragile grasslands left in America. At risk is an expanse of wild Chihuahuan Desert grasslands – the largest still in existence – in the Otero Mesa area along New Mexico’s south-central border.

The delicacy of the region is not immediately apparent to the eye. But under the desert grasses – which sustain a genetically important population of pronghorns – there is a layer of soil just thin enough to keep invasive shrubs at bay. Below that layer lies an underground reservoir of water, which also needs protection. The Bush administration is determined to force its way onto the Otero Mesa. Gov. Bill Richardson, backed by a coalition of ranchers and environmentalists, is determined to stop it.

The bureau’s plan sounds extremely modest on paper: 141 wells disturbing only some 1,600 acres. Compared with the scope of other gas- and oil-producing regions of New Mexico, the amount of land affected would be almost nothing. But conservationists say the B.L.M.’s plan – restrictive as it sounds – places no real impediment in the way of future development of a much larger area. Otero Mesa’s grasslands cover more than a million acres; the Wilderness Society estimates that under the bureau’s land use plan for the area, 95 percent of these acres remain open to oil and gas leasing.

This is part of a familiar scene in the West. The Bush administration has set its sights on dozens of ecologically valuable areas that could easily be declared off limits without imperiling the country’s supplies of oil and natural gas. As it is, 85 percent of the petroleum resources on public lands in the Western states are already leased or available for leasing. Any oil or gas found in the Otero grasslands is likely to make only a minuscule addition to America’s domestic energy supply, but could desecrate irreplaceable natural wealth.

The difference this time is that the state of New Mexico will oppose the Bush administration, so the fate of these grasslands is likely to be tied up in court for a good long time to come. But it deserves more permanent protection than that. Mr. Richardson has offered a compromise that would set aside 640,000 acres of the grasslands as a conservation area, providing space for ranchers, wildlife and the ecosystem. That is a reasonable offer, which the administration would be foolish to refuse.

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Contact Us

Coalition for Otero Mesa
Phone: (505) 843-8696 | Fax: (505) 843-8697
Email: oteromesa@yahoo.com
Contact us for more information about the Coalition for Otero Mesa, oil & gas development, or the ongoing effort to protect the last wild lands and open spaces in New Mexico.