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BLM continuing oil work in NM, despite shutdown

By Kevin Robinson-Avila | Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Many government agencies have closed their doors under the federal shutdown, but at the Bureau of Land Management, it’s business as usual, at least for the oil and gas industry.

In Santa Fe, the BLM continues to prepare for two upcoming lease sales in March and June, and the agency is apparently still processing drilling applications for individual companies.

But environmental organizations say they’re locked out of the process, since the BLM has not publicly released information about what it’s doing, nor responded to inquiries.

“We don’t know what’s happening,” Ernie Atencio, New Mexico senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said on Friday. “Today is supposed to be the start of a 10-day protest period for the March lease sale, and we don’t even know if it’s going forward…They’re not being transparent or accountable to the public about what’s going on.”

That’s a problem because federal law requires the agency to carry out environmental reviews before it conducts lease sales, allowing the public to weigh in through open comment and protest periods, said Judy Calman, staff attorney with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

“BLM has an obligation to comply with all federally required environmental reviews and to manage public lands sustainably,” Calman said in a statement. “Instead it has chosen to allow oil and gas companies to bypass regulations and accountability as it approves these sales behind closed doors.”

The Alliance and five other environmental groups asked the BLM to postpone all oil and gas lease sales and approval of drilling permits during the federal shutdown in a letter Wednesday to the agency’s state director, Tim Spisak. The letter questioned whether enough BLM staff is working during the shutdown to conduct environmental reviews.

In an email to the Journal, the agency did confirm that some employees in New Mexico have been asked to return to their jobs under a federal recall order for BLM workers nationwide to resume lease-sale and permit-processing activities.

“Up to 25 employees will be tasked both in the state office and several of the field offices over the coming weeks to complete their portions of the work/analysis/review needed to conduct the March and June oil and gas lease sales,” the statement said.

Funds from last year plus “specific cost recovery” will pay for the work, according to the statement.

It’s unclear if “cost recovery” means fees on oil companies. But environmentalists say such fees raise conflict-of-interest concerns about BLM’s ability to issue leases and permits impartially.

The agency did not say whether it’s still processing permits.

The Center for Western Priorities, however, says scores of permits in New Mexico and elsewhere continue to be processed based on documentation gleaned from four BLM data bases.

“During the shutdown, BLM has approved six drilling permits in New Mexico and accepted another 103 drilling permits, by far the most of any state,” Center Policy Director Jesse Prentice-Dunn said in an email to the Journal.

You can read the original article here.

The country’s busiest oil and gas office has a plan for more drilling

If there is one swath of land that holds the most promise for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vision for energy dominance, it might be southeast New Mexico. The 6-million acre region includes part of the Permian Basin, which stretches into west Texas and is expected to produce more than any other nation except Saudi Arabia by 2023. In August, the Bureau of Land Management released a 1,500-page draft of a new management plan for the New Mexico side of the basin that will determine how its resources will be used for the next 20 years and beyond.

The BLM’s Carlsbad field office, which oversees this three-county region, is the busiest in the nation for oil and gas drilling. It’s also a landscape of deserts, grasslands, small mountain ranges and spectacular underground caves. One of the first major resource management plans in the country to be released under the Trump administration, it paves the way for more drilling.

The plan was eight years in the making and originally expected for release under the Obama administration but was delayed after President Donald Trump was elected. According to documents obtained by High Country News, the Carlsbad field office originally intended to protect certain areas for wildlife, scenic or cultural values that are not included in the new version. For instance, maps drafted in 2016 show that BLM’s preferred alternative included more extensive protection for grasslands west of the 12,000-person town of Artesia. According to multiple sources close to the planning process, who spoke to HCN on condition of anonymity, the BLM pivoted to change “no-surface occupancy” restrictions on drilling — which prohibit companies from disturbing the surface of a sensitive area — to be less restrictive in several locations that were part of the draft plan before Trump was elected.

In response to the new administration’s priorities, “the BLM performed a review of Executive Orders, Secretarial Orders, and Secretarial Memos,” James Stovall, the BLM manager of Pecos Field District, which includes the Carlsbad field office, wrote to HCN in an email. “The team then reviewed, and revised as necessary.”

Jim Goodbar, a cave and karst specialist employed by the BLM in New Mexico for 38 years before retiring in January, worked on the resource plan under the new presidential administration. During that time, he noticed priorities shift in line with Trump’s energy-first vision. “There was definitely a sense that everybody was thinking, we wished we’d gotten it approved prior to the change of the guard,” Goodbar said. The former employee also told HCN he’s concerned the draft RMP uses 2014 data about water and mineral resources. “Since then, there have been major (oil) discoveries, and the numbers of wells and sizes of the pads have changed quite dramatically,” Goodbar said. “So that could be a lot more environmental impact than they would actually be reporting.”

Southeast New Mexico has been drilled for 90 years already, and activity has ramped up drastically in the past several. Seventy-one percent of BLM’s acreage here is leased for drilling, which means it’s either slated for development or already in use. “I think there’s a real danger that Carlsbad is going to become a single-use field office,” said Judy Calman, an environmental attorney with New Mexico Wild, a statewide conservation nonprofit. “More than other field offices, Carlsbad faces more pressure to do more for conservation because it’s so on the verge of becoming just an oil and gas field office.”

The BLM wrote its last Carlsbad plan in 1988, which left all but 11,600 subsurface acres, of 2.6 million, open for leasing. A lot has changed since then, including new innovations in fracking methods and technology that means oil-and-gas development can move faster than ever before. Climate change has also increased the importance of riparian areas for threatened or endangered species like the Texas hornshell mussel and the Pecos gambusia. 

The BLM’s preferred alternative would close three percent of the management area to new drilling, or 88,500 acres, and the agency estimates it would add more than 11,000 oil-and-gas jobs in the next 20 years.  As with all federal land plans, the draft presents four “alternatives” with varying priorities. The more conservation-oriented option would close 40 percent of the land to new leases and could create more than 9,000 industry jobs.

Environmentalists pushed for higher protections for 550,900 acres of desert riparian zones, Great Blue Heron habitat, unique salt playas, and grasslands with one of the nation’s highest diversity of bird species. BLM’s preferred alternative within the new draft doesn’t include those four nominations for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, though the agency did write its own proposals for new ACEC designations.

Tension between conservationists and industry in the Carlsbad region also extends deep underground. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, first designated in 1923 as a monument, protects over 100 miles of caves that formed millions years ago and have yet to be fully explored. “The cave and karst resources ripple out far beyond the boundary of the park,” said Jerry Otero of the National Park Conservation Association. The cave networks are connected to aquifers, which could be contaminated if drilled into for oil and gas, Otero said. "It’s very likely groundwater would be impacted and there is a possibility that caves and underground structures connected to the cave systems within the park could be penetrated and contaminated,” if certain areas near the park are leased, added Ernie Atencio, NPCA’s New Mexico senior program manager.

Advocates of the park also want the new BLM plan to reflect the fact it is an international tourist attraction. “If you’re standing at the park, at the visitors center and you look out and see and industrial landscape, your experience is not the same,” Otero said.

Many locals to southeast New Mexico are advocating for fewer restrictions on the oil and gas industry. Dan Girand, director of legislative and regulatory affairs at Mack Energy Corporation, an oil and gas producer based in Artesia, is concerned the plan will close certain lands to drilling and put restrictions on others. “Once they lease it to us, they’re going to have conditions to it, which could cost us a whole bunch of money,” said Girand, who is also chairman of Chaves County Lands Council. Oil and gas is an important economic driver for communities in the area and county commissioners would like to see even more focus on drilling and greater local input in the process. Fifteen percent of jobs in the area are in mining or the oil-and-gas industry. The per capita income of this three-county region was $39,500 in 2016, according to Headwaters Economics data.

“My preference in this whole deal would be for this draft to be thrown in the trashcan and the BLM to actually come coordinate with the counties putting this resource management plan together,” Chaves County Commissioner Will Cavin said of the draft, invoking the legal requirement federal agencies have to work alongside locals. Using the provision known as “coordination” has become a strategy in recent years for conservatives in many pockets of the West, seeking more influence in the federal planning process. Groups like the nonprofit American Stewards of Liberty, based in Texas, once funded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, put on local trainings, including in southeast New Mexico, to teach counties to leverage federal law to gain more influence. 

Cavin called for more coordination between regional federal employees and locals, he also said he and other county commissioners met with BLM brass on multiple occasions earlier this year to voice their opinions about the new RMP, including with BLM Deputy Director Brian Steed and Deputy Director of the Office of External Affairs Tim Williams. 

The BLM will hold eight public meetings about the RMP between Sept. 17 and 27, in New Mexico towns and cities of Carlsbad, Artesia, Roswell, Hope, Albuquerque, Jal, Hobbs, and in Midland, Texas. Public comments can be submitted online through Nov. 5.

Tay Wiles is a correspondent for High Country News.

Our public lands getting hit hard

BY Mark Allison | New Mexico Wild Executive Director

As I write, we are now in the longest government shutdown in American history.

A recent study by WalletHub determined that New Mexico has been hit harder by the federal government shutdown than any other state. The shutdown is particularly problematic for the state’s outdoor recreation economy, which generates $9.9 billion in consumer spending annually and directly employs 99,000 New Mexicans.

New Mexico’s public lands are threatened by this shutdown, as is the public’s safety. The reduced or absent oversight and law enforcement increases the likelihood of incidences of vandalism, destruction of historic and cultural resources, and harm to fragile ecosystems. New Mexicans are rightly concerned and saddened by this. They are also upset that their access to public lands is being limited. This predictable reaction underscores how much we as New Mexicans value our natural heritage and our public lands.

Some public lands in New Mexico remain open during the shutdown, yet those that are managed by federal agencies, such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are severely understaffed due to employee furloughs, meaning the agencies cannot provide the usual level of service and oversight.

New Mexico Wild is calling on members of the public to help document the federal government shutdown’s impact on our public lands and wild places. Individuals are encouraged to post photos and updates on public lands they visit to social media using the hashtag #OpenNMLands. The posts should tag @nmwilderness on Facebook and Instagram, and @nmwild on Twitter. New Mexico Wild will use the images and testimonies submitted to update the public on the conditions of public lands throughout the shutdown. Those who do not use social media may email their photos and stories to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Additionally, we have launched a government shutdown website the public can use as a resource to stay up to date on how the shutdown is affecting New Mexico’s public lands. The website will be updated as more information is gathered. The public can go to www.nmwild.org.

Federal employees are dedicated public servants, and they deserve our respect and support. They want to carry on the important work of protecting our public lands, but they are being told not to show up for work. To show our support, we are offering federal government employees who have been furloughed due to the shutdown a free, one-year membership to New Mexico Wild.

And while the public is being prevented from enjoying their public lands, we’ve learned that the BLM continues to process oil and gas leases on public lands during the shutdown, all while not responding to public records requests. New Mexico Wild believes that this action is illegal and is calling on the Department of Interior to postpone oil and gas lease sales and the issuance of drilling permits until the BLM can conduct legally compliant environmental reviews, and resume regular comment and protest periods.

Meanwhile, a public lands package with nearly unanimous support was reintroduced in the United States Senate on Jan. 8, including eight new wilderness areas totaling 241,067 acres within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Doña Ana County and two new wilderness areas totaling 21,540 acres within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County. The 116th Congress should quickly pass the bipartisan lands package and send it to the president.

Reopen the government. Get federal workers back to work. Pay them. Let the public enjoy their public lands. Cease processing of oil and gas leasing unless and until the government reopens. Pass the public lands package. Stop the nonsense.

Read the original article here.

New Mexico Wild Rangers Rehabilitate our Wilderness Trails

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By 'Backpacker Bill' Kemsley

About two weeks ago my wife and I met Wilderness Ranger Atieno Ouma on the Santa Barbara Trail in the Pecos Wilderness.

She is a cheery, young woman with whom we had a friendly chat. We didn't realize it at the time, but Atieno was counting us as "encounters" in her Solitude Monitoring Encounter study.

She left us to continue backpacking five more miles into No Fish Lake, which is nestled beneath the final ascent to the 50-mile Skyline Trail that traverses from peak to peak along the Santa Barbara Divide of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

When Ouma meets up with her partner, Ezra Sage, at No Fish in the wilderness their work will begin in earnest.

First, they will conduct a 10-point evaluation of the campsite's condition.

Second, they'll check to see if evidence exists that users camped within 50 feet of a trail or 300 feet of water. They will look for litter, tree damage, campfire rings, trampled soil compaction, noxious weeds and such.

They will camp there for the night with volunteers who'll come in to help them.

Before leaving in the morning, they'll clean up any trash, disassemble campfire rings and restore the site to a more primitive condition.

They will then hike still deeper into the wilderness to count Solitude Monitoring Encounters with other hikers, clean and maintain trails and find another campsite to rehabilitate.

And she gets paid for hiking. Wow!

Of course, she too is enormously grateful to have this job from June to September.

Ouma and Sage are part of a ranger contingent sent into Northern New Mexico wilderness areas by New Mexico Wild.

New Mexico Wild's work-study project has a four-fold objective:

1. Count the number of encounters with hikers, like me.

2. Assess conditions of trails, campsites and identify invasive species in the interior of each wilderness.

3. Clean up and restore campsites to more primitive conditions.

4. Educate the public about the value of wilderness areas and engage volunteers in wilderness stewardship.

So you see, Atieno accomplished two of these goals in meeting us on the Santa Barbara Trail. She counted us and courteously treated us to a bit of education in the value of federally designated wilderness areas. We appreciated it enough to want to know more.

It was sheer coincidence we met Atieno, for she was not working for the Carson National Forest, but the Santa Fe National Forest.

Since the Santa Fe National Forest was closed due to forest fire risk at the time, she was sent to work in the northern end of the Pecos on the Santa Barbara Trail, which is in the Carson National Fores and was still open at the time. Even though this small section of the Pecos is in the Carson, the Santa Fe National Forest manages it.

Working on wilderness near Taos

Two more of the 10 New Mexico Wild rangers this year, Rhett Spencer and Ben Mortensen, are working in the Wheeler Peak, Latir Peak, Columbine-Hondo and Cruces Basin wildernesses of the Carson National Forest.

I mention these trails because the rangers have even fixed that uber-steep pitch up the last stretch of the Yerba Trail to the ridge. They said that the steep son-of-a-pitch scramble was a huge off-trail mistake, due to trees blowing down and closing off the trail's last switchback route in that section.Spencer and Mortensen are working the wilderness areas in the Carson National Forest nearest Taos. Imagine how extensive the work area is for just those Ski Valley Trails - Yerba, Italiano, Manzanita, Gavilan - all the way up to the Lobo Peak ridge. Add to that the Columbine-Twining Recreational Trail across Gold Hill, and that's just one of the four wilderness areas.

Sounds like a huge job for two rangers. But they have a lot of extra help.

They're attracting dozens of hikers to volunteer for the project, already 83 volunteers this summer.

Not all volunteers, though, need do such heavy lifting. You can volunteer for instance, to take your own wilderness hike to count encounters with other hikers.

Or choose to participate with rangers and volunteers giving talks to groups: students, clubs, any type of gathering.

And here's the one I like. Go for a hike with a ranger. You can be with a ranger for a day.

The New Mexico Wild Partnership

Bjorn Frederikson, of the U.S. Forest Service Regional Office and Tisha Broska of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, put the New Mexico Wild partnership together.

In its trial run last year, they put six rangers into the field with such success that they've increased their efforts this year.

And rangers are already 50 percent more productive than last year's test run. Key measures of their effectiveness are listed in the By the Numbers box.

Both the Forest Service and Wilderness Alliance each pick up half of the funding for the wilderness ranger program. But when rangers recruit volunteers, the dollar value of the volunteers' hours count toward the contribution from New Mexico Wild.

Spencer and Mortensen boasted of having raised over 1,000 hours of volunteer time for their wilderness work. And that exceeded their requirement to raise 600 volunteer hours.

What Is a Designated Wilderness?

The Wilderness Act describes a wilderness as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. It is an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.

All motorized vehicles and tools are banned from these lands. Even bicycles are not allowed. Only foot and horse travel are permitted.

But hikers and horses are having their impact. No place is this more evident than in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, especially around Williams, Horse Shoe and Lost lakes.

It took time and effort to set aside wilderness areas.

I am an old enough geezer to recall returning home from navy combat in World War II to the frantic economic boom trying to catch up after the wartime constraints.

Our transportation system began booming in the 1950s. President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Interstate Highway System meant to tie all 48 lower states together in a network of limited-access highways that we have today.

The boom created concerns for conservationists, particularly federal lands forest rangers. They became increasingly concerned about preserving roadless areas of pristine federal lands.

Forest rangers Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser and Benton MacKay, for example, founded the Wilderness Society to lobby for setting aside still unspoiled lands.

Howard Zahniser wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956. But it took nine more years and 65 rewrites before the 1964 Wilderness Act was finally signed into law.

Those who would like their special interests allowed access to our precious set-aside lands, however, continually threaten wilderness law.

It's partly why the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the Forest Service set up the wilderness ranger program.

Work In the Wilderness Interior

So, the first 2-mile sections of prime trails in the wilderness areas closest to Taos, Wheeler, Latir and Columbine-Hondo, are the most heavily used and hence receive the greatest attention.With such a small staff of rangers assigned by the U.S. Forest Service to care for trails, it is common sense that they've focused the major portion of their working hours on the most heavily used sections of trails even with the aid of volunteers.

Forest Service Ranger Craig Saum, with his summer rangers and volunteers, does a remarkable job of caring for these sections of the 330 miles of trail in the Carson National Forest

But, that leaves a considerable portion of wilderness trails neglected, with some trails even abandoned. The Latir Wilderness has trails that have fallen into complete neglect and are no longer even identified as trails.

The Columbine-Hondo National Recreation Trail is well maintained in the 2-mile entry sections at both ends. But it has had barely any attention on its remaining 10-mile interior section.

Until that is, the New Mexico Wild rangers, with the aid of dozens of volunteers, cleared all the downed trees, rehabilitated the campsites and installed wilderness signs.

How to become a Ranger in 2019

New Mexico Wild will be announcing its needs next March. It will be highly competitive, as you can imagine.

Ouma said she applied for a ranger slot for this year's season as soon as she heard about the program. She had to compete against 90 applicants for a spot. And among those 90 were some repeats who limited the draw, since last year's rangers would naturally have an edge, reducing the opportunity even more.

Email New Mexico Wild This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to apply early in 2019. Or check the website: nmwild.org/about-us/careers. If you need additional information call New Mexico Wild Deputy Director Tisha Broska at (505) 843-8696.

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