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Protecting Southeast New Mexico’s Wild Caves through Land Management Planning 
By Joelle Marier, Grassroots Organizer, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance
From New Mexico WILD!, Volume 13, Spring/Summer 2016
The caves of southeastern New Mexico are world renowned for their stunning beauty, surreal formations, and unique geology. Outside of Carlsbad, some of the longest gypsum cave systems in the Northern Hemisphere stretch beneath a desert façade, while over 500 known limestone caves lie beneath the Guadalupe Mountains. Together with the uncommon recreational experience they provide, cave habitats support a wide array of sensitive cave-adapted species and serve as important point sources for groundwater recharge. The health of these sensitive and extraordinary resources hinges upon a delicate balance between subterranean and surface conditions. 
Formation of these extensive cave networks is associated with what geologists call a karst landscape. In karst landscapes, weakly acidic rainwater percolates through and dissolves soluble rock layers, such as limestone and gypsum, forming a unique combination of landscape features. Steep cliffs, sink holes, underground rivers, and caves are common in karst areas. These landscapes are commonly underlain by large aquifers with the ability to supply significant quantities of water. 
Karst landscapes often also contain significant extractable resources , primarily in the form of oil and natural gas. This phenomenon is exemplified in southeast New Mexico as the majority of the state and federal land here is leased or developed for resource extraction. Oil and gas development in karst areas risks contamination of area aquifers which could affect local ground water, karst-fed springs, and spring-fed riparian areas, as well as the people and wildlife that rely upon them. The interconnection between water, surface and subsurface land, vegetation, and soils within karst systems means surface disturbance, even if not directly impacting a cave, can change the physical and biological processes occurring underground. 
Two national parks, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park, currently protect over 122,000 acres of cave resources and karst landscapes in southeast New Mexico. While this acreage is significant, cave and karst resources extend into public land well beyond park boundaries. Two other Federal land management agencies – the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – administer thousands of acres of karst landscapes here, as well. 
To date, over 500 cave features have been designated as significant under the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act across BLM and Forest Service lands in this region, with many caves still awaiting evaluation. A “significant” cave is defined as a cave on federal lands that is (1) an invaluable and irreplaceable part of the nation’s natural heritage; and/or (2) threatened due to improper use, increased recreational demand, urban spread, and a lack of specific statutory protection. Unfortunately, this Act does little to protect significant caves from industrial development.
On BLM lands in southeastern New Mexico, industrial activities associated with oil and gas in sensitive karst areas have shown a dramatic increase over the past two decades and future increases anticipated.  At present, over 75% of lands managed by the Carlsbad BLM Field Office are leased for oil and gas. While pressure for development on USFS lands is not as high, they remain vulnerable as advancements in technology create opportunities for resource extraction in more remote areas. Expansion of these threats can be minimized by reducing the availability of currently wild or otherwise significant public lands to industrial development or by placing limitations on the types of development that can occur.
Two major planning efforts are currently underway that could impact protection of cave and karst resources on public land in southeast New Mexico: The Forest Plan revision for the Lincoln National Forest and the Resource Management Plan (RMP) revision for the Carlsbad BLM Field Office. These plan revisions outline how public lands in this region will be managed over the next 15 to 25 years and provide an important opportunity for placing added protection on both surface and subsurface lands in southeast New Mexico’s cave and karst areas. Both the BLM and USFS have the ability to utilize the planning process for temporary administrative protection of wilderness-quality lands and the caves beneath them. Public participation is a crucial aspect of the planning process.
Without proper recognition and management, unprotected wild lands, and the caves beneath them, become fair game for oil and gas leasing or other destructive uses that could alter their ecological integrity and future wilderness consideration. The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is advocating for protection of southeast New Mexico’s cave, karst, and other important natural, cultural, and recreational resources by encouraging federal land management agencies to first, properly inventory and recognize lands eligible for protection and second, decide to manage currently wild lands to preserve their wilderness character. Please consider adding your voice in support of protection for southeast New Mexico’s wild caves and wild public lands!
  • Visit our website. Follow “Wilderness Defense” links for BLM and Forest Service Planning. Stay updated on “Action” opportunities by adding your name to our Carlsbad supporters list. 
  • Link to online planning pages for the Carlsbad Field Office RMP Revision and the Lincoln National Forest’s Forest Plan Revision
  • Sign up for the paper or electronic mailing list for each plan revision. 
  • Participate in scoping and public meetings to stay informed, learn about differing perspectives, and talk directly with agency personnel.
  • Submit your comments when draft plans and assessments are released. Take time to write thoughtful comments about the issues you find important. 
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