Bush Administration Refuses to Release Otero Mesa Development Documents
Earthjustice filed suit in federal court in New Mexico today to acquire documents relating to the government's plan to open unroaded wild areas of the Otero Mesa to oil and gas drilling. Representing New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, the public interest law firm filed its complaint after the US Fish and Wildlife Service failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted five months ago.
Otero Mesa is a delicate and unique desert ecosystem that includes wilderness-quality land such as the Otero Mesa and Nutt desert grasslands. The area is home to numerous species that are protected under Endangered Species Act, including the black-footed ferret, northern aplomado falcon, Kuenzler's hedgehog cactus, and bald eagle. State wildlife officials and environmentalists have expressed particular concern with regard to whether oil and gas development within the Otero Mesa and Nutt desert grasslands will destroy habitat that is needed for the recovery of the endangered northern aplomado falcon. The falcon was considered extirpated from New Mexico in 1986 when it was given protection under the ESA, but since 1991 there have been ten confirmed sightings of the falcon within the state.
The Bureau of Land Management submitted a biological assessment to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2003 that identified likely negative impacts to the falcon from oil and gas development. Later that same year, under goading from the Bush administration, the BLM concluded that its proposed oil and gas development plan wouldn't impact any federally protected species enough to warrant a formal consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, as required by law. Meanwhile the Bush administration released in January 2004 a widely criticized proposal to weaken restrictions on oil and gas drilling within the grasslands. Today's lawsuit seeks to flush out documentation uncovering a part of the process -- the Fish and Wildlife Service's part in approving the BLM's decision not to further evaluate the potential impacts to the falcon and other species from unrestricted oil and gas development on the Otero Mesa.
"The Bush administration is selling out New Mexico and the Otero Mesa," said Earthjustice attorney Mike Harris. "We gave them ample opportunity to respond to our request for information, but they continue to stonewall us. Otero Mesa is one of the most endangered ecosystems in America and we can't stand by while it becomes the victim of another backroom deal."
"Backroom deals and no public involvement seem to be the process that the Bush administration and the agencies charged with overseeing our public lands are using to aid and abet the oil and gas industry. The losers are clearly the people of New Mexico," said Stephen Capra, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson also has publicly denounced plans to open Otero Mesa to oil and gas development through formal protest and in the media. "I am determined to protect ecologically valuable places such as Otero Mesa from further oil and gas leasing," wrote the governor in the latest issue of The Environmental Forum (May/June 2004).
In addition to potentially causing harm to species and land, proposed oil and gas leasing could threaten an aquifer that provides drinking water to 800,000 people.