Otero Mesa - New hopes, new threats
New Mexico’s Otero Mesa is the largest and wildest Chihuahuan Desert grassland left on public lands in America. The area is located southeast of Alamogordo, west of Carlsbad and straddles the Texas border.
At more than 1.2 million acres in size, the area is home to 1,000 native wildlife species, including mule deer, mountain lion, black-tailed prairie dogs, golden and bald eagles and more than 200 species of migratory songbirds and boasts the state’s healthiest and only genetically pure herd of pronghorn antelope. Otero Mesa is able to nourish such a wide variety of species because of the expansive black grama grasslands. Grassland expert and former New Mexico State University professor Walter G. Whitford notes that the soils, which support the black grama grasses, are remarkably shallow and as a result are particularly sensitive to any type of activity that would alter the composition.
Thousands of ancient petroglyphs and archaeological sites can be found on the volcanic Cornudas Mountains, including several ruins from the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach Route. Additionally, Otero Mesa sits above the Salt Basin Aquifer, which is suspected to be the largest untapped fresh-water aquifer left in New Mexico. Preliminary findings suggest that there are at least 57 million acre-feet of groundwater and that due to the fractured nature of the geology, the aquifer could be vulnerable to the rapid spread of contamination.
Your Rio Grande Chapter has been deeply involved in protecting Otero Mesa from the threats of oil and gas drilling as well as rare-earth exploration and mining, working for more than 10 years with and through the Coalition for Otero Mesa . In recent years our efforts to permanently protect the Mesa have focused on gaining National Monument designation from the president through the Antiquities Act. However, renewed efforts to remove protections from gas and oil drilling are afoot at the state level, and 183 claims for rare-earth elements have been filed by a Colorado company on Wind Mountain, in the heart of the Mesa. After years of holding the line, the coalition is again bracing itself for a new wave of threats to this unique New Mexican landscape. Your support will be critical in deflecting this new set of mineral exploitation plans on the Mesa—watch for Otero Mesa Alerts this winter!
The coalition is organizing a mining forum for Alamogordo in March. This follows an economic forum some coalition members sponsored earlier this year. The first event highlighted the economic benefits to local economies of National Monument lands. The mining forum will focus on the risks to communities posed by nearby mining projects and will examine the threats of rare-earth mining on Otero Mesa specifically. These forums are designed to help educate Otero County residents and leaders about the risks and opportunities Otero Mesa holds for them.
Here is an opinion editorial submitted to Otero County newspapers by Margot Wilson, southern representative to the Chapter Public Lands Team:
An Historic Recognition
Recently, President Obama announced the first national-monument designation of his presidency, Fort Monroe in Virginia. As both the landing place for the first enslaved people brought to North America and the birthplace of the Civil War-era freedom movement, the Fort bookends an important part of our nation’s history. Fort Monroe is a national treasure worthy of national-monument protections. President Obama was right to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect it for future generations and help create jobs in the region. We appreciate this important move by the President and recognize that this designation contributes to the powerful legacy he can build on public lands’ protections throughout our country.
Here in New Mexico we too share in notable landscapes, rich in history and opportunity. Otero Mesa is an irreplaceable natural treasure, our nation’s last intact Chihuahuan Grassland. Unfortunately, today Otero Mesa is under increasing threat from mining operations and the landscape-scale molestation they would bring. Better protections are needed before this unique place is lost to us.
Our country has a long history of protecting our wild and historic places, from the Yellowstone National Park to Fort Monroe. Americans recognize the value of our national legacy in public lands. Over the years, the Antiquities Act has been used by presidents from both parties to better protect our most precious lands and waters. It is thanks to the Antiquities Act that national treasures like the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon exist as icons today.
We’ve seen that protecting special places like the Grand Canyon and Otero Mesa grow tourism economies and increase recreation opportunities. In the 21 years after the 1987 designation of El Malpais National Monument up in Cibola County, population grew by 15 percent and real per capita income rose 67 percent.
click here to read the Malpais Economic Benefit Report. Conserving public lands helps grow the economy, create jobs and attract new residents.
The future of our outdoor heritage depends on decisions made today. We need to preserve these places for future generations to enjoy through recreation and employment opportunities. A monument designation for Otero Mesa would help grow tourism locally while also protecting important habitat for the grassland’s 1,000-plus species of plants and animals as well as multiplying recreational opportunities.
The Antiquities Act was created to protect and conserve our public lands and waters. These resources define our history and provide exceptional cultural, historical and natural value. In keeping with deserving places like Fort Monroe and El Malpais, Otero Mesa certainly fits the bill. Thank you President Obama for highlighting Fort Monroe; I hope that your administration will continue to look for places worthy of national monument protection.
Sierra Club, Rio Grande Chapter
Public Lands Team