30-Hour Valley Will the Forest Service trade away New Mexico's glorious Valle Vidal for 30 hours of natural gas? by Paul Rauber
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In George W. Bush's America, however, "beauty and splendor" are out. Energy development is in. The White House and the Department of Energy are speeding the exploitation of oil and gas fields across the Rocky Mountain West, which includes lifting protections on millions of acres of public land. In Wyoming, 51,000 new coalbed-methane wells are planned, and 26,000 in Montana. In southern New Mexico, there is intense pressure from the Bureau of Land Management to drill 1.2 million acres of wildlife-rich Otero Mesa, a haven for the state's last thriving herd of native pronghorn.
Washington's energy-development message was made plain to the staff of Carson National Forest when the Bush administration intervened directly on behalf of El Paso's request to drill the Valle Vidal. The Los Angeles Times quoted staffers at the Forest Service's Taos office saying that the White House "began making calls almost every week, beginning in 2003, to inquire about the progress of the Valle Vidal project."
David Seesholtz, the Forest Service planning staff officer for the Valle, insists that the White House made only a single call. Whatever the frequency of pressure applied, that process is now lurching forward, whereas past applications to drill were summarily denied. There are numerous hearings, studies, and environmental impact statements to come, promises Seesholtz: "2009 or 2010 is about as fast as anything could hit the ground," he says.
The Valle's many friends are looking for permanent protection, not a five-year reprieve. El Paso, on the other hand, is in a hurry to raise cash to pay down the $1.6 billion debt it owes California for manipulating energy prices during the state's "energy crisis" in 2001. According to the Houston Chronicle, "The company aims to focus more on coal-bed methane...The trick, in part, will be not spending too much on production, but forking out enough to produce the needed cash." El Paso offered the underfunded Forest Service $2 million to pay for the necessary studies in its planning process; the agency, to its credit, refused.
The Forest Service's integrity will be further tested in the days to come. "We're going to sort through this," promises district ranger Thibideau. "We're not being pressured, not being rushed." For now, the many parties seeking to preserve the Valle Vidal are taking him at his word. If the agency's process is allowed to run its course, says Jim O'Donnell, outreach coordinator for the Taos-based Coalition for the Valle Vidal, "they will be extraordinarily hard-pressed to open the Valle to industrialization." Since the time of Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service's mantra has been "multiple use," but El Paso's drilling would obviate all other uses.
On horseback with Oscar Simpson, I ride across Whitman Vega, savoring the lush meadow in the soft light of late afternoon, encumbered by neither wellhead nor haul road. The next day we ride south, past Old Lady Ring's cabin, along pioneer wagon tracks, skirting the charred remnants of the two-year-old Ponil fire, already sprouting new growth. The fire finished off the last remaining pioneer cabins, leaving only foundations and the sad graveyard of men and women who never saw 30. Taking a shortcut through the blackened woods, we find our trail marked by the cairns of riders before us who made the same choices in the same places.
Leaving the horses to rest, we clamber up the Rock Wall, the dramatic formation of upthrust sandstone that bisects the higher west side of the Valle Vidal from the natural-gas-rich east side. It looks like China's Great Wall, winding up and down the ridgeline. To the west, autumn cottonwoods blaze against the cool dark conifers, and wind rippling the aspen trees makes them appear as though through a clear running stream.
To the east, the "area of interest," in the bland jargon of the Forest Service: the vast golden meadows, pine-covered hills beyond. A sharp line of rain obscures the sudden end of the Rockies, the beginning of the plains, and it's next stop, Tulsa. The only signs of humans are a single road and our own steaming breaths before us. From far below in the gathering twilight comes the bugling of an elk.
It seems so unlikely, as the valley falls into shadow, that this timeless vista would ever change. Yet the energy industry won big last November with the reelection of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and the painstaking public process initiated by the Forest Service could easily be derailed. "The Great White Father in Washington could always step in," suggests Joe Torres. "I've seen it happen: They put it on the fast track, and the next thing you know drilling rigs are going in."
Forest planner Seesholtz admits that "there could be things outside of our process that will occur." The Bush administration could — by underfunding, subtle pressure, or simple fiat — subvert that process. Drilling could begin quite soon, since much of the necessary infrastructure lies right over the ridge at Vermejo Park Ranch. The Valley of Life would be replaced by the Valley of Industry.
Simpson gestures at the enormous Raton Basin from atop the Rock Wall. "All that is open to development," he says. "All we want is for this 40,000 acres of wildlife area to be left alone."
Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.
This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.