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U.S. Senate bill creates 13 wilderness areas in New Mexico

By Rebecca Moss | Santa Fe New Mexican
February 12, 2019

A sweeping public lands conservation package that passed the U.S. Senate on Tuesday with overwhelming support from both parties would establish 13 new wilderness areas in New Mexico, the largest land designation in a single year since 1980.

The Natural Resources Management Act, including 170 bills with provisions reaching into every state, passed on a vote of 92-8.

Together, the measures would permanently reauthorize the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund — which draws revenues for conservation efforts from offshore oil and gas drilling — and protect 1.3 million acres as wilderness, including more than 270,000 acres in New Mexico within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Doña Ana County and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County.

The wilderness designation, which prohibits roads and motorized vehicles, would still allow for recreation, hunting, livestock grazing and law enforcement.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said in a news release that the Land and Water Conservation Fund has “invested over $312 million to help protect our most cherished public lands, spur job creation and fuel our $9.9 billion outdoor recreation economy, a key economic driver in the state that employs 99,000 New Mexicans.”

The public lands package has broad support in the House of Representatives, where it faces a vote after the mid-February recess, and White House officials have indicated the president will sign it, according to the Washington Post.

Wilderness preservation has been the subject of ongoing conflict between Democrats and the Trump administration. Environmentalists feared early in President Donald Trump’s term that his administration would reduce wilderness designations in New Mexico, but that didn’t happen.

Conservation advocates hailed the bipartisan effort.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled that these special places are one step closer to being protected in their wild and natural states, providing New Mexicans and all Americans with ample opportunities to escape to the outdoors,” said Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild, in a news release Tuesday.

“Given that New Mexico is home to the nation’s first designated wilderness area, it is gratifying to see that tradition of conservation and responsible stewardship of our public lands continue,” he said.

According to the organization, polls conducted in 2016 showed 78 percent of residents in Doña Ana County support wilderness protections in Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and that 93 percent of registered voters in Taos County believe wilderness is important to them.

Udall’s news release said lodgers tax revenue in Taos increased by 21 percent a year after designation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. “In addition,” the statement said, “gross-receipts revenue to businesses in Taos County in the accommodations and food service sector rose 8.3 percent in the second half of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012.”

The public land measures that passed Tuesday, and earlier iterations, have faced strong support and sponsorship from New Mexico Democrats in Congress, including former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who introduced legislation in 2009 to create wilderness in Doña Ana County.

A provision in the Natural Resources Management Act would permanently designate watershed management in the Rio Puerco Basin, which spans 4.7 million acres in New Mexico. This would continue collaborative effort to restore wetlands areas by resolving flood damage, controlling erosion and increasing vegetation.

A 12-year-old management program for the Rio Puerco Basin, critical for flow into the Middle Rio Grande Basin, was set to expire in March.

The provision to maintain the program was introduced by Udall and fellow U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.

“By the end of the last century, decades of poor land management and pollution combined with highly erodible soils created immense difficulties all along the Rio Puerco floodplain,” Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a statement.

“With a collaborative, comprehensive approach,” Heinrich added, “it is possible to make real progress in restoring the land and water in this watershed that is so central to communities in Western New Mexico.”

This article first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Our public lands getting hit hard

BY Mark Allison | New Mexico Wild Executive Director

As I write, we are now in the longest government shutdown in American history.

A recent study by WalletHub determined that New Mexico has been hit harder by the federal government shutdown than any other state. The shutdown is particularly problematic for the state’s outdoor recreation economy, which generates $9.9 billion in consumer spending annually and directly employs 99,000 New Mexicans.

New Mexico’s public lands are threatened by this shutdown, as is the public’s safety. The reduced or absent oversight and law enforcement increases the likelihood of incidences of vandalism, destruction of historic and cultural resources, and harm to fragile ecosystems. New Mexicans are rightly concerned and saddened by this. They are also upset that their access to public lands is being limited. This predictable reaction underscores how much we as New Mexicans value our natural heritage and our public lands.

Some public lands in New Mexico remain open during the shutdown, yet those that are managed by federal agencies, such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are severely understaffed due to employee furloughs, meaning the agencies cannot provide the usual level of service and oversight.

New Mexico Wild is calling on members of the public to help document the federal government shutdown’s impact on our public lands and wild places. Individuals are encouraged to post photos and updates on public lands they visit to social media using the hashtag #OpenNMLands. The posts should tag @nmwilderness on Facebook and Instagram, and @nmwild on Twitter. New Mexico Wild will use the images and testimonies submitted to update the public on the conditions of public lands throughout the shutdown. Those who do not use social media may email their photos and stories to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Additionally, we have launched a government shutdown website the public can use as a resource to stay up to date on how the shutdown is affecting New Mexico’s public lands. The website will be updated as more information is gathered. The public can go to www.nmwild.org.

Federal employees are dedicated public servants, and they deserve our respect and support. They want to carry on the important work of protecting our public lands, but they are being told not to show up for work. To show our support, we are offering federal government employees who have been furloughed due to the shutdown a free, one-year membership to New Mexico Wild.

And while the public is being prevented from enjoying their public lands, we’ve learned that the BLM continues to process oil and gas leases on public lands during the shutdown, all while not responding to public records requests. New Mexico Wild believes that this action is illegal and is calling on the Department of Interior to postpone oil and gas lease sales and the issuance of drilling permits until the BLM can conduct legally compliant environmental reviews, and resume regular comment and protest periods.

Meanwhile, a public lands package with nearly unanimous support was reintroduced in the United States Senate on Jan. 8, including eight new wilderness areas totaling 241,067 acres within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Doña Ana County and two new wilderness areas totaling 21,540 acres within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County. The 116th Congress should quickly pass the bipartisan lands package and send it to the president.

Reopen the government. Get federal workers back to work. Pay them. Let the public enjoy their public lands. Cease processing of oil and gas leasing unless and until the government reopens. Pass the public lands package. Stop the nonsense.

Read the original article here.

BLM continuing oil work in NM, despite shutdown

By Kevin Robinson-Avila | Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Many government agencies have closed their doors under the federal shutdown, but at the Bureau of Land Management, it’s business as usual, at least for the oil and gas industry.

In Santa Fe, the BLM continues to prepare for two upcoming lease sales in March and June, and the agency is apparently still processing drilling applications for individual companies.

But environmental organizations say they’re locked out of the process, since the BLM has not publicly released information about what it’s doing, nor responded to inquiries.

“We don’t know what’s happening,” Ernie Atencio, New Mexico senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said on Friday. “Today is supposed to be the start of a 10-day protest period for the March lease sale, and we don’t even know if it’s going forward…They’re not being transparent or accountable to the public about what’s going on.”

That’s a problem because federal law requires the agency to carry out environmental reviews before it conducts lease sales, allowing the public to weigh in through open comment and protest periods, said Judy Calman, staff attorney with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

“BLM has an obligation to comply with all federally required environmental reviews and to manage public lands sustainably,” Calman said in a statement. “Instead it has chosen to allow oil and gas companies to bypass regulations and accountability as it approves these sales behind closed doors.”

The Alliance and five other environmental groups asked the BLM to postpone all oil and gas lease sales and approval of drilling permits during the federal shutdown in a letter Wednesday to the agency’s state director, Tim Spisak. The letter questioned whether enough BLM staff is working during the shutdown to conduct environmental reviews.

In an email to the Journal, the agency did confirm that some employees in New Mexico have been asked to return to their jobs under a federal recall order for BLM workers nationwide to resume lease-sale and permit-processing activities.

“Up to 25 employees will be tasked both in the state office and several of the field offices over the coming weeks to complete their portions of the work/analysis/review needed to conduct the March and June oil and gas lease sales,” the statement said.

Funds from last year plus “specific cost recovery” will pay for the work, according to the statement.

It’s unclear if “cost recovery” means fees on oil companies. But environmentalists say such fees raise conflict-of-interest concerns about BLM’s ability to issue leases and permits impartially.

The agency did not say whether it’s still processing permits.

The Center for Western Priorities, however, says scores of permits in New Mexico and elsewhere continue to be processed based on documentation gleaned from four BLM data bases.

“During the shutdown, BLM has approved six drilling permits in New Mexico and accepted another 103 drilling permits, by far the most of any state,” Center Policy Director Jesse Prentice-Dunn said in an email to the Journal.

You can read the original article here.

The country’s busiest oil and gas office has a plan for more drilling

If there is one swath of land that holds the most promise for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vision for energy dominance, it might be southeast New Mexico. The 6-million acre region includes part of the Permian Basin, which stretches into west Texas and is expected to produce more than any other nation except Saudi Arabia by 2023. In August, the Bureau of Land Management released a 1,500-page draft of a new management plan for the New Mexico side of the basin that will determine how its resources will be used for the next 20 years and beyond.

The BLM’s Carlsbad field office, which oversees this three-county region, is the busiest in the nation for oil and gas drilling. It’s also a landscape of deserts, grasslands, small mountain ranges and spectacular underground caves. One of the first major resource management plans in the country to be released under the Trump administration, it paves the way for more drilling.

The plan was eight years in the making and originally expected for release under the Obama administration but was delayed after President Donald Trump was elected. According to documents obtained by High Country News, the Carlsbad field office originally intended to protect certain areas for wildlife, scenic or cultural values that are not included in the new version. For instance, maps drafted in 2016 show that BLM’s preferred alternative included more extensive protection for grasslands west of the 12,000-person town of Artesia. According to multiple sources close to the planning process, who spoke to HCN on condition of anonymity, the BLM pivoted to change “no-surface occupancy” restrictions on drilling — which prohibit companies from disturbing the surface of a sensitive area — to be less restrictive in several locations that were part of the draft plan before Trump was elected.

In response to the new administration’s priorities, “the BLM performed a review of Executive Orders, Secretarial Orders, and Secretarial Memos,” James Stovall, the BLM manager of Pecos Field District, which includes the Carlsbad field office, wrote to HCN in an email. “The team then reviewed, and revised as necessary.”

Jim Goodbar, a cave and karst specialist employed by the BLM in New Mexico for 38 years before retiring in January, worked on the resource plan under the new presidential administration. During that time, he noticed priorities shift in line with Trump’s energy-first vision. “There was definitely a sense that everybody was thinking, we wished we’d gotten it approved prior to the change of the guard,” Goodbar said. The former employee also told HCN he’s concerned the draft RMP uses 2014 data about water and mineral resources. “Since then, there have been major (oil) discoveries, and the numbers of wells and sizes of the pads have changed quite dramatically,” Goodbar said. “So that could be a lot more environmental impact than they would actually be reporting.”

Southeast New Mexico has been drilled for 90 years already, and activity has ramped up drastically in the past several. Seventy-one percent of BLM’s acreage here is leased for drilling, which means it’s either slated for development or already in use. “I think there’s a real danger that Carlsbad is going to become a single-use field office,” said Judy Calman, an environmental attorney with New Mexico Wild, a statewide conservation nonprofit. “More than other field offices, Carlsbad faces more pressure to do more for conservation because it’s so on the verge of becoming just an oil and gas field office.”

The BLM wrote its last Carlsbad plan in 1988, which left all but 11,600 subsurface acres, of 2.6 million, open for leasing. A lot has changed since then, including new innovations in fracking methods and technology that means oil-and-gas development can move faster than ever before. Climate change has also increased the importance of riparian areas for threatened or endangered species like the Texas hornshell mussel and the Pecos gambusia. 

The BLM’s preferred alternative would close three percent of the management area to new drilling, or 88,500 acres, and the agency estimates it would add more than 11,000 oil-and-gas jobs in the next 20 years.  As with all federal land plans, the draft presents four “alternatives” with varying priorities. The more conservation-oriented option would close 40 percent of the land to new leases and could create more than 9,000 industry jobs.

Environmentalists pushed for higher protections for 550,900 acres of desert riparian zones, Great Blue Heron habitat, unique salt playas, and grasslands with one of the nation’s highest diversity of bird species. BLM’s preferred alternative within the new draft doesn’t include those four nominations for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, though the agency did write its own proposals for new ACEC designations.

Tension between conservationists and industry in the Carlsbad region also extends deep underground. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, first designated in 1923 as a monument, protects over 100 miles of caves that formed millions years ago and have yet to be fully explored. “The cave and karst resources ripple out far beyond the boundary of the park,” said Jerry Otero of the National Park Conservation Association. The cave networks are connected to aquifers, which could be contaminated if drilled into for oil and gas, Otero said. "It’s very likely groundwater would be impacted and there is a possibility that caves and underground structures connected to the cave systems within the park could be penetrated and contaminated,” if certain areas near the park are leased, added Ernie Atencio, NPCA’s New Mexico senior program manager.

Advocates of the park also want the new BLM plan to reflect the fact it is an international tourist attraction. “If you’re standing at the park, at the visitors center and you look out and see and industrial landscape, your experience is not the same,” Otero said.

Many locals to southeast New Mexico are advocating for fewer restrictions on the oil and gas industry. Dan Girand, director of legislative and regulatory affairs at Mack Energy Corporation, an oil and gas producer based in Artesia, is concerned the plan will close certain lands to drilling and put restrictions on others. “Once they lease it to us, they’re going to have conditions to it, which could cost us a whole bunch of money,” said Girand, who is also chairman of Chaves County Lands Council. Oil and gas is an important economic driver for communities in the area and county commissioners would like to see even more focus on drilling and greater local input in the process. Fifteen percent of jobs in the area are in mining or the oil-and-gas industry. The per capita income of this three-county region was $39,500 in 2016, according to Headwaters Economics data.

“My preference in this whole deal would be for this draft to be thrown in the trashcan and the BLM to actually come coordinate with the counties putting this resource management plan together,” Chaves County Commissioner Will Cavin said of the draft, invoking the legal requirement federal agencies have to work alongside locals. Using the provision known as “coordination” has become a strategy in recent years for conservatives in many pockets of the West, seeking more influence in the federal planning process. Groups like the nonprofit American Stewards of Liberty, based in Texas, once funded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, put on local trainings, including in southeast New Mexico, to teach counties to leverage federal law to gain more influence. 

Cavin called for more coordination between regional federal employees and locals, he also said he and other county commissioners met with BLM brass on multiple occasions earlier this year to voice their opinions about the new RMP, including with BLM Deputy Director Brian Steed and Deputy Director of the Office of External Affairs Tim Williams. 

The BLM will hold eight public meetings about the RMP between Sept. 17 and 27, in New Mexico towns and cities of Carlsbad, Artesia, Roswell, Hope, Albuquerque, Jal, Hobbs, and in Midland, Texas. Public comments can be submitted online through Nov. 5.

Tay Wiles is a correspondent for High Country News.

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