Phil Taylor and Manuel Quinones, E&E reporters
June 30, 2011
Tribal and environmental leaders lobbied the Obama administration this week to designate a national monument on more than a million acres in southern New Mexico, a sacred land to some that contains one of the United States’ most intact and ecologically diverse desert grasslands.
Members of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in southeast New Mexico and a leader of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance met with Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation and Interior Department officials to urge protections for Otero Mesa from hardrock mining and oil and gas drilling, which they say threatens the area’s natural values and could harm drinking water.
The 1.2-million-acre area near the Texas border is believed to be the largest and most primitive Chihuahuan Desert grassland left on public lands and is home to 1,000 native species including mule deer, mountain lion, black-tailed prairie dogs and eagles, according to monument supporters.
“I go down to Otero Mesa and I get this powerful feeling that I know came from my ancestors,” said Ted Rodriguez, commissioner of the Mescalero Gaming Commission and a tribal elder. “For me it wasn’t a tourist journey. For me it was a spiritual journey.”
A coalition of environmental groups including the Wilderness Society, World Wildlife Fund and Audubon Society have joined in asking Obama to use his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate a national monument.
While Obama has yet to use the act, a leaked Bureau of Land Management memo in early 2010 indicated Otero Mesa was among roughly a dozen sites the administration believes qualify for a monument designation if it carries local support.
But while national monuments have been designated by 15 of the past 18 presidents, the act has come under attack from many Western lawmakers, who argue states and Congress should have greater say in its use. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who represents the area where Otero Mesa is located, is among the critics.
“When conserving our natural resources, it is important to have a balanced approach that includes local priorities, such as jobs, the economy, private property and support,” said Pearce spokesman Eric Layer in an email. “Unfortunately, Washington has proven to lack embodiment of these key principles when it comes to federal land management. Before making a determination, the federal government should seek the input of the county, cities and all local residents and stakeholders.”
But while not all officials are on board locally, including some county commissioners and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R), Otero Mesa’s unique history, abundant water resources and biologically diverse grasslands belong to all Americans, said Nathan Newcomer, associate director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.
“Otero Mesa is a national issue, it’s not just a New Mexico issue,” he said. “It’d be right for the president to step up and say ‘Here’s this broad local support. People have been fighting for this area locally for a very long time. Since Congress can’t get anything done, I have the authority to protect this area.'”
The group met this week with staff for Democratic New Mexico Reps. Ben Ray LujÃ¡n and Martin Heinrich, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D) and Tom Udall (D), as well as Interior lands and minerals officials to make their case.
“They were very appreciative of our time,” Newcomer said of his meeting yesterday with Interior. “They said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.'”
The meeting, which was the first between Interior and Mescaleros, addressed some of the potential difficulties of creating a national monument, including likely opposition from Pearce, Newcomer said.
“I told them that even with those difficulties, the positive side of this is thousands and thousands of New Mexicans who have fought for decades to stop oil and gas development,” he said. Interior “recognized that there was a lot of support.”
A land of multiple uses
While the area offers spiritual sanctuary for some, with American Indian petroglyphs and rock dwellings, a mining company believes it could also safely produce important minerals, while creating jobs, on the mesa’s highest mountain.
Denver-based Geovic Mining Inc. has staked mining claims over 5 square miles in the Otero Mesa area. Last month, conservationists like Newcomer became alarmed when they discovered that the company had more than doubled its claims.
While the area is rich in resources like uranium and lithium, Geovic is particularly interested in eudialyte, a red mineral containing zirconium and rare earths, a group of elements essential in manufacturing numerous technologies and whose demand is expected to increase in the coming years.
“If this exploration project works out the way we expect,” said company founder William Buckovic in a statement, “it will enable production of many key ingredients for materials essential to new green technology and national defense system industries, with limited impact on our environment.”
Although the 1872 mining law gives companies wide latitude to mine on federal land, declaring Otero Mesa a national monument could deal a blow to the company’s plans.
“If you create a national monument now that’s going to trigger the Bureau of Land Management to go through validity analysis, which they would have to conduct specifically for those claims,” Newcomer said. “It’s also going to force the company to go through more hoops, if you will, to try to produce those claims.”
Jack Sherborne, president of new ventures for Geovic, said company leaders are aware of the push to designate the area as a national monument.
“Any mining activity would be more difficult to do than it would be otherwise,” he said. “It may be so difficult to do that it may not be plausible to do.”
Sherborne takes pains to stress the limited nature of the company’s exploration program, he said, designed to avoid more sensitive areas, including land designated by the Bureau of Land Management as an area of critical environmental concern.
“Honestly I don’t trust them,” Newcomer said. “And what I think is going to happen, if they can prove the resource is high, they’re going to say, ‘Look, we’ve hit the jackpot.'”
Not only are American Indians concerned about protecting what they identify as an ancestral homeland, they worry mining will contaminate water resources for decades to come.
“If mining or any kind of drilling or anything like that, it’s going to contaminate the water,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t want that contaminated whatsoever.”
The Obama administration has come under increasing pressure from environmentalists and former Interior officials to use his national monument powers to protect threatened areas including Otero Mesa and Alaska’s Bristol Bay, a push that has met opposition from many lawmakers who say Congress and states should make those decisions.
Former Clinton administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt this month said the threat of a national monument alone may be enough to spur lawmakers to pass their own land conservation bills.
But while Clinton designated 19 national monuments, all but one of those were announced during his second term. His first designation of the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in September 1996 set off a firestorm of criticism from Utah lawmakers and some local residents that has simmered to this day.
The Otero County Commission in spring issued an ordinance expressing concern that “potential federal management plans may reduce or deny citizens of Otero County the ability to pursue historic deeds, such as grazing, native gathering, agricultural wood harvesting, natural plant harvesting.”
Protection advocates described the move as progress, signaling county openness to addressing the issue. They say local farmers and ranchers need not be worried about a monument designation affecting their livelihood.
But monument supporters concede they have very little chance of garnering the support of Martinez or Pearce, who is also a co-sponsor of H.R. 302, which would require the president to gain the consent of the state before designating a monument.
Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for Bingaman, said the senator is listening carefully to all the stakeholders who use Otero Mesa, but is not ready to endorse a monument designation.
“Senator Bingaman hopes very much that whatever the BLM does, it does nothing to degrade that watershed or that aquifer,” she said, referring to the 15 million acre-feet of drinking water believed to underlie the mesa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
For now, Bingaman is deferring to the White House on any potential designations, McCartin said, adding that the senator has sponsored a pair of bills to designate wilderness and conservation areas in other parts of New Mexico.