The Last Grassland (Part 3 of 4)

Riparian restoration of spring on Alamo Mountain, Otero Mesa, New Mexico. Photo by Zoe Krasney.

This is the third installment of a four-part series on the beautiful, threatened Otero Mesa from New Mexico writer and Southwest Regional Office Administrative Assistant Zoe Krasney.

We hike the flanks of Alamo Mountain, bushwhacking through a tangled skein of vegetation and boulders. Ocotillo quaver like skinny Giacometti figures, a few still in flower. Sharp Soaptree Yucca, Crucifixion plant, Graythorn tear at our clothes; the ground is littered with Barrel cacti, Prickly Pear, Hedgehog, a few Rockdaisy and bright blue Dayflowers. We carry shovels and pruners and a pick, move quickly, alert for the rattlesnakes we envision under every shadow of a stone. Many of us haul plastic gallon-jugs of water: we will be restoring an overgrown spring, and planting cottonwood trees.

In two hours we have cleaned a stretch of the spring where we will plant the two trees. At first, it looked inconceivable: a giant Hackberry filled the shady grotto with suckering branches, as well as briny dead cholla, mesquite, huge four-wing saltbush. We laugh, talk, work silently, scattering the brush along the mountainside as we clear the trail and spring. An irritated jackrabbit flips us off with his ears; we find javelina scat, which is added as fertilizer to the planting holes; Rock-wren and Gambel’s quail pause to witness our hubbub, while vultures circle, waiting for flesh.

Looking out over the enormous orb of Otero Mesa, we see tiny boxes of ranch houses with wide spaces in between. Just out of focus, phantom buffalo loll and gallop, ephemeral as smoke, while the ruins of the old Butterfield Express hold the memory of wagon trains in its crumbling walls.

If the drilling is allowed to proceed, it is estimated that there will be 150 miles of roads splitting up Otero. Each pad will cover 5 acres of land. The trucks roaring by will chase away the remaining prairie dogs, foxes, badger, antelope, the nesting birds, the restless falcons. Even the Kangaroo Rats will evacuate as the earth shudders from seismic exploration. The grassland cannot be broken, and mend, when its spine is shattered, despite assurances from the oil companies that surface disturbance would be minimized, restoration promised for the compromised clearings.

Beneath the sward of grasses is a layer of caliche, mineralized hardpack, under a few inches of soil. The roots of grass are shallow, but trap the soil in their fibrous net. If the caliche is fissured, tap-root shrubs take over and the soil erodes, blown away by the wind. The grass can never return.