One of the greatest natural landscapes in America has been saved from a Bush-era plan to develop it for oil and gas. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on April 28 invalidating the Bush administration drilling plan for New Mexico's wildest grassland, Otero Mesa. The ruling came in a case brought by Earthjustice. The court ruled that the Bush energy development plan illegally failed to consider protection for Otero Mesa and the Salt Basin Aquifer.
At about two million acres, Otero Mesa is one of the last undisturbed areas of Chihuahuan desert with the nation's largest contiguous patch of a prairie grass called black gramma grass, which takes decades to re-establish. Conservationists have inventoried Otero Mesa and found more than 500,000 acres suitable for wilderness designation. The mesa also is home to hundreds of species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds and insects. Otero Mesa is a refuge for a host of rare species, including the endangered Aplomado falcon.
"They aren't making landscapes like New Mexico's Otero Mesa anymore, which is why this ruling protecting the area is so important" said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell. "This is a wide, natural area, brimming with native wildlife where this part of America is pretty much the same as it was when Columbus landed. There are places where the country can go for its energy needs, but there are others, like Otero Mesa, that deserve our respect and protection."
In 2005 the Bush administration approved a plan for aggressive oil and gas development on Otero Mesa which replaced an earlier, much narrower, oil and gas development plan that restricted development to areas near existing roads. The Bush plan opened more than 90 percent of public lands under the federal Bureau of Land Management's jurisdiction in the area between El Paso, Texas and Carlsbad, New Mexico to oil and gas drilling.
Soon after the State of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the new oil and gas development plan claiming it violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. A coalition of conservation groups filed a companion lawsuit making similar claims. A district court ruled against the conservation groups and state of New Mexico, both of which appealed, resulting in this successful decision.
"The court's ruling underscores what has been at the heart of the Otero Mesa debate for the past eight years," said Nathan Newcomer, Associate Director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. "The BLM made oil and gas development in Otero Mesa the number one priority over the values of wilderness, wildlife and water, and it's time now for the agency to own up to its responsibilities and do what is right for this special place."
"The BLM cannot simply decide to risk the utter destruction of irreplaceable resources like Otero Mesa and ignore public and scientific concerns," said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel with The Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center. "The 10th Circuit has sent a clear message to the BLM that the agency must protect all of our natural resources and ensure that any decisions are based on actual facts and science."
Earthjustice represented the National Wildlife Federation, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Southwest Environmental Center, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Forest Guardians.