America’s Wildest Grassland – Our Next National Monument
The Otero Mesa Grasslands within the Chihuahuan Desert (of southern New Mexico) have long been recognized as “special” by the State of New Mexico, former Governor Bill Richardson, numerous state legislators and scientists, tribal and religious leaders, sportsmen, ranchers, and conservationists.
This expansive landscape is home to mule deer, black-tailed prairie dogs, mountain lions, coyote, golden and bald eagles, 200 species of migratory songbirds, the endangered Aplomado falcon, and the state’s healthiest herd of native pronghorn antelope.
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Our campaign to protect Otero Mesa has been ongoing since 2001, when the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance helped form the Coalition for Otero Mesa, a broad coalition of hunters, ranchers, conservationists, and state leaders. The Coalition has led the way in preserving this last great desert grassland as our nation’s next National Monument, a designation the President can proclaim without Congressional legislation by invoking the American Antiquities Act. In late 2010, Otero Mesa gained the confirmed support of Governor Richardson, who wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to designate Otero Mesa a National Monument. We’ve never been closer to seeing this national treasure permanently protected.
After working successfully to safeguard Otero Mesa from oil and gas development for more than a decade, a new threat to this wild desert grassland was identified in late 2010 – hardrock mining. Denver-based Geovic Mining Corp. staked more than 180 new mining claims in the heart of Otero Mesa. In July of 2011, the State of New Mexico approved a permit for Geovic Mining Corp. to begin conducting exploratory drilling on Wind Mountain, the most iconic peak in Otero Mesa. The company is seeking to mine for rare earth minerals and has staked claim to a surface area equivalent to five square miles. This type of hardrock mining operation could significantly alter the landscape and have serious impacts on wildlife habitat, soil composition and the Salt Basin aquifer in Otero Mesa.
Over the last year we have taken specific action to protect Otero Mesa and keep it wild and free from industrial development:
Oil and gas development
In 2011 the oil and gas industry filed petitions for rulemaking with the Oil Conservation Commission (OCC) to review the state pit rules and the pit rule for Otero Mesa, which prohibited the use of waste water pits on Otero Mesa. Industry requested a reversal of the pit rule put in place several years ago, as well as removal of the pit ban in Otero Mesa. We joined the proceedings as a party primarily to participate in the portion of the hearing related to Otero Mesa, but also to support the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is fighting the statewide revisions. Between May and August 2012 the commission heard testimony. In October 2012 the commission agreed on the record to dismiss the portion of the petition concerning the special rules for Otero Mesa. Also in October the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved an Application for Permit to Drill (APD) for HEYCO to drill a test well on Otero Mesa. NM Wild and several other organizations from the Otero Mesa Coalition appealed this BLM decision to state director review, which is the first step in the litigation process.
This year, working with coalition partners, we were able to convince the Las Cruces BLM Field Office and the state director to withdrawal any future mining claims within the existing ACECs (Area of Critical Environmental Concern) in Otero Mesa.
Moving forward we will look to gain support from a wide range of historical and cultural organizations. This will also allow us to shift the focus of support to the archeological and historical qualities of this important landscape. At the core of this plan is a new historical and archeological report that we recently commissioned. The report reveals a rich history that involves Buffalo Soldiers, the Texas Rangers, rich salt deposits and Native American clashes.
We need your support to help save this last desert grassland. Please consider donating to the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance to help us continue to fund our Otero Mesa campaign. Your contribution will help us continue education and outreach efforts, and build new partnerships such as our relationship with the Mescalero Apache. Your donation will also support the efforts of our Otero Mesa campaign director here in New Mexico and in Washington D.C.