Too Historic To Drill: New Report Highlights Archeological Treasures in Otero Mesa

Aug 14, 2013

A view of the Otero Mesa Grassland

Paul Garland

Albuquerque (August 14, 2013) – A recent report demonstrates the importance of protecting the last fragment of the wild Chihuahuan Desert, Otero Mesa. The report, Pasaron Por Aqui (They Passed By Here - Cultural and Archaeological Treasures of Otero Mesa) highlights the outstanding and irreplaceable historic and cultural values of Otero Mesa—values that oil and gas exploration, mining and other industrial activity threaten to destroy.

The report, by Deni J. Seymour — an archeologist and ethnohistorian who lives in Albuquerque — unmasks the cultural history of Otero Mesa. Seymour has dedicated her life’s work to the study of the lesser known indigenous cultures of the American Southwest.

“What makes this place so special is how alive it is and has been for centuries,” said Dr. Deni J. Seymour, author of Pasaron Por Aqui. “We know so little about these ancient peoples and their lifeways, and Otero Mesa gives us a chance for discovery and to open a door to relatively unknown and spectacular cultures.”

Seymour describes Otero Mesa as the intersection between local heritage and natural history. The region’s springs—fed from the largest aquifer in New Mexico—provided central points for trails that drew people across the mesa because they produced a necessary source of water. Today, Otero Mesa still rests on one of the largest aquifers of fresh water in the state. 

In the heart of the Wild West, the land serves as a crucible for memories of Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans, including the Apache, the Tigua, ranchers, outlaws, miners, Texas Rangers and military servicemen, including the Buffalo Soldiers. Due to its rich history, Otero Mesa boasts thousands of petroglyphs and archaeological sites.

The human history of Otero Mesa dates back roughly 14,000 years or perhaps even further into pre-Clovis times.  Pasaron Por Aqui etches out the history of both the distant and more recent past. This rich history demonstrates the importance of permanently protecting Otero Mesa, so that future generations can walk the same paths and cross the same forgotten ruins of what might be one of the oldest locations of human occupation on the continent.

“New Mexico is considered to be the Land of Enchantment,” said Michael Casaus, New Mexico regional director for The Wilderness Society. “Oil and gas drilling and mining on Otero Mesa would eliminate the footprints of Otero Mesa’s past and its ability to invoke our imagination and retrace the paths of our ancestors.” 

This desert environment, which has been a contested interface among European and indigenous peoples for hundreds of years, continues to be a battlefield—however, for a different set of contestants: the land and those who want to tarnish its landscapes and exploit its resources.

“Right now we have an opportunity to protect Otero Mesa,” said Judy Calman, attorney with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “Putting this landscape off-limits to oil and gas development is the right way to safeguard its rich history and treasured wildlife that have meandered the land for thousands of years.”

Otero Mesa is home to threatened black-tailed prairie dogs, coyotes, golden eagles, the most genetically pure herd of pronghorn, and at least 13 species of grasses—some of which are found nowhere else in the region.

“Otero Mesa is too complex and too diverse—ecologically and historically—to describe in a few, short words,” said Margot Wilson, Conservation Chair of Southern Lands for the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter. “But, if oil and gas development were to take place in this natural and cultural wonder, all its beauty, its wonder, its imagination would vanish once and for all.”


Dr. Deni J. Seymour, (505) 934-3364,

Emily Diamond-Falk, (202) 841-8605,