The New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division today approved exploratory mining in Otero Mesa, the state’s pristine desert grassland straddling the Texas-New Mexico border.
The approval for Geovic Mining Corp.’s exploratory drilling comes just months after the company began staking over 150 claims near Wind Mountain on Bureau of Land Management lands of the mesa, and at a time of immense local and national support for permanently protecting Otero Mesa’s wilderness, wildlife, water resources, and Native American treasures.
“It is alarming that mining activities will begin on Otero Mesa, with no opportunity for public input, after we’ve worked for a decade to ensure Otero Mesa was safeguarded from oil and gas drilling,” said Nathan Newcomer, associate director of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “It is devastating that this company would put drinking water, wildlife, and these natural lands at risk in an area that we all know deserves protection.”
In 2005, a coalition of conservation organizations joined the State of New Mexico in filing suit against the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to open the grassland to oil and gas development. The lawsuit was ultimately successful, and Otero Mesa is currently unavailable to oil and gas leasing until the BLM completes a new environmental analysis. Unlike the BLM’s planning process for oil and gas leasing and drilling, the proposed mining activities do not permit public comment.
Ted Rodriguez, Headman of the Mescalero Apache Traditional Elders Council also expressed disappointment to hear that initial mining operations have been approved on Otero Mesa. Ted Rodriguez and Larry Shay of the Apache Advocates for Otero Mesa recently returned from Washington, D.C., where they met with members of the New Mexico delegation and Interior Department officials to advocate for permanent protection of Otero Mesa.
“We envision Otero Mesa as a place for Apache youth programs that will educate and inspire them by the unique lifestyle of their ancestors,” said Mr. Rodriguez. “If hardrock mining is allowed to move forward, then we are going to lose an opportunity to pass these sacred lands on to future generations.”
In addition to harboring expansive wilderness lands and irreplaceable cultural resources, Otero Mesa is treasured by hunters locally and nationally for its vibrant wildlife populations and backcountry hunting opportunities. “Mining on Otero Mesa would most certainly have a negative impact on hunting,” said John Cornell of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “That type of energy extraction would change the landscape forever in this rare and vulnerable grassland ecosystem.”
In its decision invalidating the BLM’s plan for oil and gas development in Otero Mesa, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit specifically found that the plan did not adequately consider potential impacts of oil and gas development in causing habitat fragmentation in the grasslands or in contaminating the Salt Basin Aquifer. The Salt Basin is believed to be New Mexico’s largest untapped freshwater resource, and research has shown it is likely to be extremely vulnerable to contamination. The Court demanded the BLM conduct additional environmental analysis on habitat fragmentation and aquifer impacts before proceeding with oil and gas leasing and development.
This is a joint release by the Coalition for Otero Mesa.