Safe for now: Drilling reprieve for Otero Mesa

Alamo Mountain, New Mexico. Photo by Nathan Newcomer.

As the snow was piling on Denver streets this week, Wilderness Society Senior Counsel Nada Culver got the news she had been anticipating for months.

A federal district court issued a final order disposing of the Otero Mesa oil and gas leasing case, putting to an end to the Bureau of Land Management’s drilling plan for the fragile area. The news assures the area will remain unblemished for now, but only permanent protections will gaurantee its long-term survival. Click here to help us gain permanent protections!

Worth Fighting For

Culver has led the Wilderness Society’s legal battle for protection of New Mexico’s Otero Mesa for 6 years, a tense, drawn-out campaign of legal skirmishes and full-on charges, involving the Bureau of Land Management, a well-connected local oil “wildcatter”, the shadowy energy task force of the Cheney-era, and the big guns of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico. Culver, an environmentalist version of Helen Mirren’s Inspector Tennison, fixed her steely determination on fighting for protection of one of the rarest and most endangered landscapes in the West.

The BLM Action Center of the Wilderness Society, led by Culver’s exhaustive research and commitment to fighting the federal agency’s assertion that their plan for Otero Mesa was “the most restrictive oil and gas leasing ever on public lands” did what they had to contest this and protect the fragile landscape: they sued.

In April, the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals had issued a decision on the BLM’s oil and gas drilling plan for Otero Mesa, determining that it was fatally flawed due to its failure to consider protection of its wilderness values as a viable Resource Management alternative.

This week’s decree disposed of the case for good, declaring the BLM’s management plan for Otero Mesa “unlawful.” Its finding prohibits any further contesting of the strongly-worded decision by the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

If Otero Mesa itself could sigh with relief, it might look like a spray of metallic-colored grasses shimmering over vast plains, the shadow of Alamo Mountain torn by a soaring eagle, a black-tailed prairie dog diving for cover as it spotted the raptor, a last butterfly of fall sipping on blue asters. This vast area in Southern New Mexico—almost 2 million acres—is the last and most extensive Chihuahuan grassland in the United States.

Not Over Yet

Though the Appeals Court decision invalidated the BLM oil and gas drilling plan, the battle to permanently protect Otero Mesa is not yet won. Right now, there's nothing to stop the BLM from moving forward with a new plan to lease Otero Mesa - and we expect the oil and gas companies to push for it.Only a legislative or executive action to designate this grassland as a National Conservation Area, or National Monument, will ensure that this treasured port to another time, when grasslands covered the Western Plains, will survive and flourish.

Pronghorn roaming across the grassland, New Mexico. Photo by Nathan Newcomer.What's at Stake: Grasslands are fragile ecosystems. Most of the grasslands in the Southwest have been ruined by poor land management practices over centuries, turning them into swaths of sagebrush and mesquite, much poorer in the number and kinds of biodiversity that can be supported. Perhaps because of its remote location, or maybe just luck, Otero Mesa survived this threat, spreading as the vast windswept home to over 1,000 native species, from showy pronghorn antelope to the delicate horned lark to the rare coralroot orchid. Grassland bird species that thrive on the Mesa, are the most endangered of all threatened avian species in North America, showing the greatest decline in recent years. Although this amazing area, tucked between the limestone canyons of the Brokeoff and Cornudas Mountains retained its remarkable web or life, suddenly, in the late 1990’s, Otero Mesa showed up in the crosshairs of oil and natural gas development.

Targeted by oil and gas

The outright battle over Otero Mesa started in 1997, when the Harvey E. Yates Company (HEYCO) discovered a reservoir of natural gas in the grassland’s southern tip, the Bennett Ranch Unit. Three more miles, over the border into Texas, Yates once noted, and no one would have made a fuss. But these gas reserves lay under swales of black grama and stipa grass, and 11 other species of rangeland grasses included in the Otero Mesa ecosystem, all under the control of the Las Cruces office of the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico.

Over the next 5 years, the BLM issued its draft Resource Management Plan and its preferred alternative, opening 95 percent of the field office lands to leasing. Inviting public comment and input from county commissions, ranchers, environmentalists and other interested groups, the BLM proceeded to issue its Record of Decision, couched in the rhetoric of environmental sensitivity, while in fact making it easier for oil and gas development.

Otero Mesa grassland in New Mexico. Photo by Nathan Newcomer.What they ignored was the very nature of the grassland: fracturing the land for drilling or exploration was irredeemable. The substrate of Otero Mesa is a shallow level of soil, backed by hardened caliche. Once this is broken, the tap roots of invasive shrubs take root, breaking the fine balance necessary for grasslands to survive. There has never been any successful reclamation of black grama grasslands, despite the assertions of the BLM that such reclamation would restore the disturbed areas.

Culver’s legal analysis of the BLM decision on Otero Mesa dissected the language, and showed what the on-the-ground reality of its application was. If permitted to stand, the fragile web of the Otero Mesa ecosystem would have been shattered by drilling pads and service roads; the huge Salt Basin aquifer, the largest underground water source in New Mexico would be unprotected from contamination from chemicals leaching from gas fracturing; weeds and shrubs would displace the natural grasses, and the wildlife that depend on it for their subsistence would scatter and disappear.

The Wilderness Society, in partnership with other conservation and wildlife groups, is continuing efforts to have permanent protection for Otero Mesa. Then the sweet smell of wild grasses might blow north, all the way to Denver.

Take action to protect Otero Mesa

Alamo Mountain, New Mexico. Photo by Nathan Newcomer.
Pronghorn roaming across the Otero Mesa grassland, New Mexico. Photo by Nathan Newcomer.
Otero Mesa grassland in New Mexico. Photo by Nathan Newcomer.