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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2005
Table of Contents
 
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Sierra Magazine
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30-Hour Valley
Will the Forest Service trade away New Mexico's glorious Valle Vidal for 30 hours of natural gas?
by Paul Rauber

(page 2 of 3)

Passions about the land run high in northern New Mexico. This is where the bloody Colfax County War erupted in the 1870s, when a Dutch syndicate bought the Valle Vidal (plus another couple million acres) and sent hired guns to eject the homesteading "squatters." Many of the early homesteads are still recognizable, and the Forest Service has even restored the Ring Ranch, a large home built by a 19th-century pioneer with seven daughters.

By the 1920s, the area had become the Vermejo Park Club, a playground and hunting camp for the wealthy and famous, including Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Cecil B. DeMille. The Depression ended the party, and the land eventually passed into the hands of the Pennzoil Company, which found neither oil nor marketable coal and so donated it to the Forest Service in 1982 for a tidy tax break.

Pennzoil, which had treated the area with greater care than many past owners, wanted the Valle's abundant animal life protected — an understanding shared (at the time, at least) by the Forest Service. As the Taos News reported the dedication ceremonies of June 14, 1985, "Max Peterson, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, told the assembled dignitaries, government employees and ranching neighbors the Forest Service would manage the unit to protect its prime resource — its wildlife."

Since then, the Forest Service and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish have been doing precisely that. The elk hunt is well managed and sustainable. Great efforts are being made to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, which is a prime candidate for listing as an endangered species. District ranger Ron Thibideau proudly exhibits the scores of "exclosures" along Comanche Creek, fenced-off areas meant to allow brushy growth and trees to once again cool the waters for the native fish, which have already lost 99 percent of their historic range. Thousands of volunteer hours have gone into the endeavor, which has led to two successful reintroductions.

This project would be for naught, however, were drilling to occur. The cracks in coal seams that contain methane also contain water, often highly saline or otherwise contaminated. Before the gas can be brought to the surface, vast amounts of this "produced" water must be pumped out. It is often simply dumped into rivers and streams, but even when reinjected into the aquifer (which Ted Turner requires on his property), it can easily contaminate nearby wells, as it has in many other areas sacrificed to coalbed-methane production.

At present, the broad meadows of the Valle are spotted with occasional lazy windmills, drawing up water for the 850 fortunate cattle that graze there during the spring and summer. The Valle Vidal Grazing Association is run by Joe Torres, a compact, white-haired rancher. When I pull up to his house, he and a mechanic friend have their heads stuck under the hood of his pickup. "It's all sensors and diodes now," says the friend, shaking his head. "It's not driveway work anymore."

Torres's grandfather homesteaded in the area in the 1800s. Joe, now in his 70s, remembers visiting the Valle Vidal as a kid "with boogers hanging off my nose, chasing sheep in the snow," and encountering "Old Lady Ring," the last surviving Ring daughter, who never appeared in public without a .45 strapped to her side. He admits that the Valle was overgrazed in the past, but boasts about the progress made in recent years — much of it because the grazers hired a full-time cowboy to mind the cattle. "We have a right to be there," says Torres, "but we don't have a right to abuse it." Sure enough, as we rode through the southern reaches of Whitman Vega, native grasses brushed the horses' withers.

Torres insists that he's not anti-drilling; he's just worried about what it would mean for the Valle Vidal. "If the Forest Service lets them drill, they'd damn well better have a lot of people to watch them," he says; he figures the taxpayers can afford at least as much supervision as Ted Turner's land has. ("We can just tax him more," he suggests.) But Torres is also aware that there isn't much precedent for such scrupulous attention from the federal government. "There are some areas," he concludes, "that probably shouldn't be drilled at all."

If drilling contaminates the wells and ends cattle grazing in the Valle Vidal, only a couple of elderly ranchers would object. But the consequences would ripple much farther. Several studies from Wyoming, where coalbed-methane drilling is widespread, show that the noise and traffic of drilling lead elk to avoid an area of 100 acres for every acre of drilling disturbance. Since the Valle Vidal's elk winter range overlaps 100 percent with prime drilling territory, that means the end of New Mexico's largest elk herd. If the elk went, they'd naturally be followed by the hunters.

The equestrians who come from all over the country to ride the broad meadows and open, parklike forests would similarly be unlikely to return to ride among screaming compressors. Ditto for the hikers, like the couple from Santa Fe we overtook on the trail who, after Simpson's warning of the drilling threat, were desperate to know what they could do to stop it.

In a report on local economic impacts of natural-gas development in the area,

Thomas Power, professor and chair of the Economics Department at the University of Montana, shows that "visitor services" contribute more to the economy of Colfax County than the entire mineral sector. Power concludes that risking damage to the Valle Vidal "in the pursuit of the small and temporary local economic gains that would accompany developing it as a natural gas field threatens to convert that which is unique, valuable, and of long-term significance into something that is cheap and common: another industrialized landscape."

Industrial development would also mean the end of a decades-old Boy Scout tradition. Just to the south lies Philmont Scout Ranch, a 137,000-acre retreat from which, every year, some 2,500 to 3,000 scouts cross over to the Valle, where they earn merit badges in backpacking, camping, and wilderness survival, and take the Boy Scout Wilderness Pledge: "Through good camping and hiking practices, I pledge myself to preserve the beauty and splendor of America's wilderness, primitive and backcountry areas."

Continued
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