Virtual OmniBUS Tour! Exploring New Mexico’s subterranean treasures

Caver in Snowy River Cave, New Mexico. Courtesy New Mexico BLM.

Anyone who is claustrophobic may want to stay on the bus for this stop. If you’re up for some adventure, though, we’re going to go below-ground and see some amazing spectacles — getting a glimpse of just a few of the scientific motivations for passing the Omnibus lands bill.

Untouched by life above, an underground treasure-trove awaits protection

By Zoe Krasney

Sometimes the treasures of nature are under the surface. In the central and southern regions of New Mexico, two unique areas will receive protection under the Omnibus Lands Act, both of them offering subterranean gifts and wonders. The Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave Natural Conservation Area in Lincoln County, and Trackways National Monument in southern Dona Ana County each contain amazing geologic formations of value to science and, through wilderness protection, the opportunity for the public to experience these undisturbed.

In 1987 an amateur paleontologist digging in the Robledos Mountains just outside of the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, stumbled across a set of dinosaur tracks that led to the discovery of the largest and most important Paleozoic fossil site in North America. Not just a single footprint, but whole trails revealing the ecology of the land 280 million years ago, a pathway back in time.

The 5,300 acres of Trackways National Monument, though largely still unexcavated, have already given a hint of the broad spectrum of its fossilized remnants, from the 11-foot fin-backed Dimetrodon to the amphibians, insects, and tiny invertebrates who left their shallow imprints in the hardening mud.

“These trackways serve as a “Rosetta Stone” enabling the interpretation and understanding of ancient fossils from around the world” U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman said when he introduced this bill to Congress.

As part of the management plan to be developed by the Bureau of Land Management, priority will be given to establishing a public education center in Dona Ana County and making available further opportunities for scientific research.

A few miles away from the forest where Smokey Bear became famous, three long-time New Mexican spelunkers and a teenager from the town of Hobbs broke through a small borehole, rappelled 70 feet down in darkness, and discovered a cave that sparkled with calcite crystals white as snow.

Quickly named “Snowy River,” the cave extends for more than four miles, weaving into unexplored passages equally as fantastic, showing it to be one of the largest continuous cave systems in the world.

So important is the scientific potential of this formation, that its location was kept secret for years, until then U.S. Senator Pete Domenici proposed it as a National Conservation Area, later included in the Omnibus Act.

New organisms have been discovered that exist no where else, and hydrologists and geologists are exploring the site for what it will reveal about the formation of the earth.

This protection will ensure that nearby mining leases will never endanger the awe-inspiring beauty of the Snowy River Cave.

photo: Caver in Snowy River Cave, New Mexico. Courtesy New Mexico BLM.

Zoe Krasney, administrative assistant in the Southwest Regional Office of TWS, has backpacked wilderness areas in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and eight other states — and hopes to add to that list soon.

See a map of America's newest wild lands and Wilderness.