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The Coalition That Could

New Mexicans look to break the gas industry's stranglehold on public lands

by Rebecca Clarren

Published in the November/December 2006 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph by Laurence Parent, used with permission

“GAS DRILLING DESTROYS. Nothing grows on those damn drill pads except crushed gravel and weeds,” says Oscar Simpson, president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. Simpson, fifty-eight, wears a thick mustache, a battered wide-brimmed hat, and a crusty disposition. He furrows his brow as he sits astride his white horse. “We can’t let them do that.”

The scent of ponderosa pine laces the air here at around 8,000 feet. Simpson looks out over the lush meadows, dense forests, and glimmering ponds that comprise the Valle Vidal, a 102,000-acre parcel of the Carson National Forest that clings to the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. Springs rising throughout the valley produce green meadows where light makes patterns on wildflowers. As a flock of wild turkeys struts toward the nearby pine trees, Simpson nods to the land below, describing elk migration routes and what he considers to be some of the best horse-riding country in the United States.

“People come here from all over. Go around the campgrounds and you’ll see license plates from Kansas, from Texas,” he says. “We call this the Yellowstone of New Mexico, it’s such a unique area.”

Beneath these riches is another type of wealth, controlled by the federal government: an estimated 150 billion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, enough to meet America’s needs for about two days. Worth nearly $900 million at current prices, it’s a resource the gas industry is hungry to reach. Within the next two years, the U.S. Forest Service could choose to allow exploration companies to drill up to 500 wells and cut hundreds of miles of roads to service them. Already, most of the surrounding 1.5 million-acre Carson Forest has been drilled for gas, and from an airplane a spider web of roads is visible on the landscape there. But not here.

It’s three hours from the Valle to the capital city of Santa Fe, south over the thirteen-thousand-foot-high spine of the Sangre de Cristos, through gritty historic towns like Cimarron and the rich tourist burg of Taos, past lonely plateaus and ranch country. Thousands of people from these towns and the quiet spaces in between hunt, run cattle, and relax in the “Valley of Life.” Like Simpson, they are speaking out in the face of potential gas development; together they have built a broad organization that is working feverishly to protect this one spot from the ravages of drill rigs, pump jacks, and truck traffic.

What makes this northern New Mexico effort unique is that there’s a chance it might actually succeed, which would make the Coalition for the Valle Vidal the first group to decisively beat back an energy company amid the current drilling boom. To take on this industry is an ambitious goal. In the past three election cycles, oil and gas companies nationwide gave federal Republicans over $67.3 million, and federal Democrats over $17 million. During the same time period the federal government streamlined and fast-tracked gas well permitting processes; consequently, when it comes to drilling, many members of the public in the rural West believe they have little power over what happens in their backyards. In light of this dynamic, other communities sitting atop natural gas reservoirs are looking closely to this corner of northern New Mexico, trying to learn from people who are fighting back with rare effectiveness.

Three years ago, upon hearing that Houston-based El Paso Corporation had approached the Forest Service about drilling in the Valle Vidal, a handful of ranchers, hunters, and wildlife officials started brainstorming about how to protect the area. Since then, their numbers have swelled to over six thousand. Comprising more than four hundred local entities—governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals—the Coalition for the Valle Vidal has two paid staffers and thousands of volunteers who are trying to leverage this deep base of support to convince the federal government to put the Valle completely off-limits to gas development—forever. The membership runs the sociopolitical gamut, from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Posse, Questa Chamber of Commerce, and Archdiocese of Santa Fe, to MW Bar Ranch, Blue Moon Art Gallery, and Moby Dickens Bookshop.

By mid-2006, they were making great strides. With letters of support from seventeen New Mexico cities, including Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and from Democratic Governor Bill Richardson, they had convinced the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Valle Vidal Protection Act. Introduced by New Mexico Congressman Tom Udall, a Democrat, and co-sponsored by Congresswoman Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, the bill would withdraw the area from regulation under the 1872 Mining Act, preventing the issuance of any federal gas leases and subsequent drilling.

The coalition is seeking other legal protections, too. It convinced Richardson to nominate the Valle Vidal, home to the headwaters or tributaries of the Rio Grande, Rio Costilla, and Canadian rivers, for the highest level of protection under the Clean Water Act. He also asked President Bush to designate the Valle as a roadless area, off-limits to all new road building, which would make drilling much more difficult.

Regardless of whether the Senate passes the necessary companion legislation to protect the Valle Vidal, the efforts of the coalition have transcended ordinary environmental politics.

“I’ve been sitting across the table with people I normally couldn’t relate to because we just have a different walk of life. I’ve learned to have a lot of respect for another point of view. It’s really helped me grow as a human being,” says Alan Lackey, a National Rifle Association member, Republican, and former hunting guide in the Valle who now ranches on ten thousand acres in Roy, a town of around 350 people southeast of the Valle. “If we’re successful with this, people are going to realize they have to put their personal things aside, because it’s taken this broad base to get anything done.”

Coalition organizer Jim O’Donnell, based in Taos, says he’s received three dozen calls in the past year from people in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Oregon who want to emulate the New Mexico group’s efforts.

“We’ve got to win this for the entire West. We’ve been losing for six years, and I feel that pressure,” says O’Donnell, a native New Mexican, his voice rising. “This is such an important battle because it’s a flagship landscape of the entire country. If we win this, it’s the first victory, and it shows other groups other strategies and possibilities.”

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Rebecca Clarren writes from Portland, Oregon, for Salon.com, Ms., The Nation, and other publications. Her work is frequently supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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