Otero Mesa victory could be far-reaching

From The New Mexican

4/29/2009 – 4/30/09

To embattled environmentalists and their lawyers, and for politicians taking their side, it came as a ray of sunshine. As for the endangered and threatened animals on whose behalf they’ve been fighting, ni hablar.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for New Mexico’s neck of the woods ruled that the federal rush to allow gas and oil drilling on Otero Mesa was, to put it mildly, flawed. For that matter, said a three-judge panel, so is the Bureau of Land Management logic that it must allow development on public land.

What a turnaround from the dark days of Bush/Cheney, when then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton, wrapping herself in environmental feathers, warbled that what her minions had in mind for the mesa was the most restrictive of its kind “ever developed by the Bureau of Land Management.” And during that time, a federal district judge declared BLM’s plan for that threatened area between Las Cruces and Carlsbad OK.

It was left to state leaders to stall the gas-and-oil giveaway, and the seismo-trucks and drilling rigs an outfit in Roswell was hot to send onto the mesa, endangered aplomado falcons be damned. Gov. Bill Richardson, along with state Energy Secretary Joanna Prukop threw administrative obstacles in the way, while Attorney General Gary King pursued an appeal to the 10th Circuit.

That’s where the state, the enviros, and reason prevailed: This week’s decision could possibly go to the Supreme Court, but drilling proponents and their lawyers still have other routes onto the mesa: The decision doesn’t rule out drilling on the small part of the half-million-acre stretch that’s been targeted; but it could mean that BLM will have to come up with an environmental-impact statement on the entire area.

That could be a deal-killer, especially since BLM and its parent Interior Department now are in responsible hands. The previous administration relied heavily on an old and sickly doctrine: “multiple use” of public lands. Its beneficiaries were still whining Wednesday over the court’s denial of that perceived right.

But, said the judges, multiple use has been misconstrued — it doesn’t mandate that every use be accommodated on every piece of land; “rather,” went the decision, “delicate balancing is required.”

That goes especially for Otero Mesa, said the court, noting that the area has been described as “the most endangered ecosystem type in the United States.”

Appellate-court decisions constitute huge amounts of our nation’s “case law,” so this one, especially if it doesn’t get to the Supremes, could prove persuasive in many a legal campaign against the industrial assault on the West that’s been going on since Ulysses Grant was president.

Some conservationists are saying this is the first time New Mexico has sued the federal government over a public-lands issue. Whether it is or not, it came enhorabuena — and we commend the teamwork of King, Prukop and Richardson in pressing this precedent-setting case.

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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.