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The Otero Mesa Legacy of Governor Richardson and Sierra Club Volunteers
In 1998, Rio Grande Chapter excom member Margot Wilson who lives in Southern New Mexico heeded the call to attend a scoping meeting on drilling for natural gas on Otero Mesa. Heyco Energy group, an oil and gas drilling company owned by the Yates family of Southeastern New Mexico had flooded the BLM with applications to drill on the pristine grassland so the agency called for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Bill Clinton was president then and after the meetings and comment gathering what emerged in the Resource Management Plan was not terrible. It allowed no new roads and minimal development on Otero Mesa balancing drilling with the natural values of the landscape.
Then George W. Bush was elected. Heyco Energy was among his largest contributors in the region and the BLM threw out the earlier documents and put in place plans for extensive development of Otero Mesa with drilling allowed on over 90% of the area. This threatened to alter and destroy the grassland and wildlife of the Mesa and also put at risk what may be an extensive fresh water aquifer underneath the land.
A coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club sued the BLM in 2005 and last fall, over a decade since the first scoping meeting, that suit came to fruition with a favorable ruling for the environment of Otero Mesa. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that oil and gas leasing cannot proceed on Otero Mesa without new environmental analysis and that the BLM must consider the alternative of closing the Mesa entirely to oil and gas drilling.
This could not have happened without the help of Governor Bill Richardson who drew a line at Otero Mesa which he would faithfully not cross even in the name of “economic development”. In recognition of that, the Governor stepped into an Albuquerque Boxing ring in January 2010 to accept a pair of Golden Gloves bestowed by New Mexico boxer Holly Holm on behalf of the conservation organizations he championed. It also should be noted that the Sierra Club would not have had standing to join in this successful lawsuit had Margot Wilson not attended the initial scoping meeting all those years ago. People in power can wield a lot of influence, but the power of ordinary people can be extraordinary as well. Our thanks are due to politicians who didn’t back down to protect Otero Mesa and to our volunteers who also stepped up to make a difference. - Mary Katherine Ray
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