Locals examine how protecting Otero Mesa could mean money for New Mexico

Rock art in Otero Mesa, New Mexico. Photo by Juli Slivka.

On a busy Saturday in the small southern New Mexico town of Alamogordo, nearly 100 residents gathered at a public forum hosted by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. The topic of conversation was about how permanent protection for the nearby desert grassland Otero Mesa could render economic benefits to nearby counties.

The community discussion was a great opportunity for many of us to learn more about the benefits to local communities that comes from activities like hunting, birding, and hiking.

Otero Mesa is one of the last and largest remaining pieces of intact Chihuahuan Desert grasslands in our country, and is home to more than 1,000 native species including rare grasses, bald eagles, and pronghorn. The area also encompasses more than a half million acres of roadless, wilderness-quality lands. All of these qualities make Otero Mesa an ideal place for outdoor recreation that draws in money to local communities who support those activities.

The Wilderness Society and our local partners have spent nearly a decade fighting to stop oil and gas drilling on this fragile ecosystem – now we hope the Obama administration will permanently protect it as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s Conservation System, such as by designating it a national monument. It’s important that the local community be involved in the decision making process and are given opportunities like this, to learn more and voice opinions.

The economics forum featured Ben Alexander, an economist and Associate Director at Headwaters Economics. Ben discussed Otero County’s economic profile and expressed concern that the county is overly dependent on the federal government, owing to the many military facilities in the area. He offered examples of other rural communities that have reinvigorated their economies by capitalizing on nearby protected public lands. Protected public lands generate recreation and tourism dollars, create diverse employment opportunities, and increase property values.

The forum also featured Susan Hand and Ray Hatch to offer their experiences of how national monument designations have affected their communities. Susan is the owner of an outfitting company in Kanab, Utah, near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Her business struggled until the designation of the monument brought tourists from around the country to explore the suddenly-popular place. Ray is the former mayor of Taft, an oil and gas town in central California. When the Carrizo Plain National Monument was designated just miles from Taft, the town quickly realized the economic benefits of becoming a “gateway community.” The Carrizo Plain Visitors’ Center now occupies the same building as Taft’s Chamber of Commerce.

Other speakers at the forum were State Senator Steve Fischmann, Las Cruces City Councilor Gill Sorg, New Mexico Wildlife Federation member Bobby Curran, and Interstate Stream Commission Deputy Director Craig Roepke. All of these people provided unique insights into similar issues.

During the forum, residents expressed a variety of interests and understandable concerns with designating Otero Mesa a national monument. In the end, the most important thing is that the community has a voice in the fate of Otero Mesa because it’s this community that will benefit most directly from its designation. Local community involvement was a theme of the forum and residents were urged to stay active throughout the continuing process. Otero Mesa has the potential to grow and diversify the economies of surrounding communities, and an open dialogue is necessary to make that happen.

photo: Rock art in Otero Mesa, New Mexico. Photo by Juli Slivka.