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Conservationists Ask for Public Access to Otero Mesa Development Documents

Government says oil and gas industries are welcome to look at documents but public isn't
December 8, 2004
Washington DC — 
On behalf of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society, Earthjustice filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C. to acquire documents explaining the Bush administration's proposal to open up New Mexico's pristine Otero Mesa to private oil and gas exploration. The suit is necessary because the BLM shared documents with oil and gas companies but refuses to share all of them with the public. Before the Bush administration came into office, the federal Bureau of Land Management planned to allow limited oil and gas development in Otero Mesa near existing roads. After the Bush administration took over, the BLM suddenly changed its plan to instead encourage widespread oil and gas development in virtually all parts of the largely unroaded natural area.

Meanwhile recently acquired notes from government wildlife experts show that their warnings about the threats to wildlife mysteriously disappeared from government documents after the federal government yielded to oil and gas industry demands to open more of Otero Mesa. The notes reveal the government wildlife experts found the federal Bureau of Land Management's analysis of how oil and gas development in Otero Mesa would affect wildlife "totally lacking." The wildlife experts also noted the BLM failed to consult any of the existing scientific literature regarding just how long restoration of the Otero Mesa grasslands would take if oil and gas development occurs on the scale approved by the Bush administration. FWS's own experts, however, projected that it would "take decades" for the grasslands to recover fully.

"The winners here are a handful of major companies that paid good money to get special access to our public lands. The losers are clearly the people of New Mexico," said Stephen Capra, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

The Otero Mesa in south-central New Mexico is one of the wildest places in the United States and contains two important stretches of Chihuahuan desert grasslands, one of the most endangered ecosystem types in North America. These grasslands provide habitat for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, black-tailed prairie dog, the endangered northern Aplomado falcon, and other species. These lands also provide important grazing areas for local ranchers, and the aquifers that underlie them can provide vital water to an arid landscape.

Earthjustice submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society in April 2004 to uncover the backroom dealing that led to the government about face. In July, the BLM released some general background documents but withheld more than 10,000 pages that address the potential adverse environmental impacts oil and gas exploration would have on the Otero Mesa. BLM withheld several of these documents from conservationists despite openly acknowledging that they were already shared with private oil and gas company officials.

"Our government is telling citizens of this country they're unwelcome to their rightful seat at the table when the future of one of America's natural jewels is being sold out to oil and gas development interests," said Earthjustice attorney Mike Harris. "The oil and gas corporations are welcome to see the plans but the public is forbidden. Average Americans can easily smell a skunk here."

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former Energy Secretary under President Clinton, signed an executive order earlier this year making it state policy to prevent drilling in Otero Mesa. At the time he said, "Otero Mesa deserves to be protected and I intend to make that clear to the administration." The governor wrote in the May/June issue of The Environmental Forum, "I am determined to protect ecologically valuable places such as Otero Mesa from further oil and gas leasing."

"Excessive drilling at Otero Mesa could threaten species and land and damage an aquifer that has enough drinking water for 800,000 people," said The Wilderness Society's Pam Eaton. "If the oil and gas corporations are permitted to see the plans, the public should also be welcome. That's how we'll achieve balanced management plans that work for our land, our water, and our communities."

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Contact:
Mike Harris, McCrystie Adams, Earthjustice, 303/623-9466
Stephen Capra, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, 505/843-8696 x103
Pam Eaton, The Wilderness Society, 303/650-5818 x 103