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The Last of the Southwest

Otero Mesa, the remnant of a forgotten grassland, looks for a little recognition

By Peter Frick-Wright

It is a strange and empty place, a place whose contours suggest that those who do not know it are best to leave it alone. . . . And, as with all strange and empty places in this increasingly crowded, increasingly monocultural world, Otero Mesa is an important island in our geography of hope.
Otero Mesa: Preserving America's Wildest Grassland, Gregory McNamee

It was a place of legend and the legend was lost.
—Styve Homnick

On a bright, chilly morning, I packed a bike into the back of a rental car and drove east from El Paso, steering toward the blank place on my map. I watched strip malls give way to salvage yards and then the sun-punished scrub and dust of rural West Texas. Before long, the prospect of relieving myself beside the road seemed like something of a public service.

But I kept going east and took a dirt road north before the Border Patrol station. Twelve miles later I was in New Mexico. The dust became dirt, and the scrub turned to sparse, brittle grass. Eventually, the ground found a subtle roll, like what a Lego man might encounter on a journey across a bedspread. The occasional yucca distinguished itself as the tallest thing in sight; nothing seemed to have a shadow. Welcome to Otero Mesa.

Just north of the New Mexico-Texas border, Otero Mesa is the nation's largest contiguous piece of Chihuahuan desert grassland—considered the most endangered ecosystem in the United States. Conservationists have spent the last decade trying to save it, first from oil and gas developers, then from mining companies. Now, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups are lobbying President Barack Obama to designate it as a national monument, thus giving permanent protection to 1.2 million acres of fragile desert.

A few hundred years ago, Otero Mesa was a central gathering place and hunting ground for nomadic Apache tribes. It gradually became a refuge where tribes wouldn't be surprised by Spanish or American soldiers. It's land where you can see what's coming.
So maybe it was fitting that my only charter on this trip was to spend a week mountain biking Otero Mesa's dirt roads, taking in the territory with a fresh pair of eyes.

Along with the bike, I'd brought a tent, 15 gallons of water, a week's worth of food, and a massive head cold. On a sandy patch of ground on the mesa's eastern side, I set up a base camp from where I could embark on daylong rides.

Camp anywhere, I'd been told by Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center. Unless it's obviously private land. If you open a gate, shut it behind you, he'd said. And don't worry about publicizing any locals-only spots. "At this point," Bixby said, "there's no danger of overloving Otero Mesa."

On my first day of riding, the view from my handlebars was undulating pasturelands. Faraway hills had the mien of rumpled felt; rain clouds bruised one corner of an otherwise pristine sky. Twice I scared up a ferruginous hawk, and twice it flapped hard to match my speed, keeping in formation at my 10 o'clock, sunlight glowing through its wings. Later on, a rabbit took an overland escape route in the shape of a lightning bolt. During one of my rest breaks, a badger heading downwind wobbled within 10 yards of me.

I noted all this with rote detachment, however, much like encountering a celebrated artwork and feeling nothing special. Except instead of museum legs, I had an industrial-grade cold that kept me hacking and wheezing my way across the mesa's chunky gravel roads and sucking down water in tremendous gulps. I pedaled through the grassland with my head down, trying to summon some memory of what proper breathing was like, even as two pronghorn—the world's second fastest land mammal—trotted distant arcs across my path.

Otero Mesa's wildlife is utterly dependent on healthy grasslands. Prairie dogs, for example, feed on the dominant grass species and make their homes among the grasses' roots. Their presence makes the soil more fertile and conducive to growing the types of broadleaf forbs that pronghorn like to eat. They also tailor the environment for burrowing owls and kit foxes, which build nests in abandoned prairie dog dens. And almost every carnivore on the mesa snacks on prairie dogs from time to time—they are something like corn dogs for cougars.

The grasslands survive here in large part because of a layer of calcium carbonate rock, sometimes called calcrete for its similarity to concrete. Forming a solid barrier two feet underground, calcrete keeps shrubs and invasive plants from establishing a deep root system, while allowing the shallower black grama grass roots to thrive.

If in a time of drought, however, the calcrete is uneven, cracked, or too deep—as it is today throughout much of the Southwest—the grass loses its edge and other, thirstier plants take hold.

The next day of riding was largely vanquished by headwinds, while day three took me to the center of the Cornudas Mountains, volcanic formations on the mesa's southern edge that jut from the landscape like Egyptian pyramids.

To the Apache tribes who once roamed this land, these mountains were sacred—a place for artwork and ceremonies. "It's one of the densest concentrations of rock art I've ever seen," said Deni Seymour, who has studied Apache archaeology for more than 25 years. "I'm really barely scratching the surface."

During pioneer days, the mountains served as a pragmatic navigational aid for drivers on the Butterfield Overland stagecoach route. Now, modern times are devolving them further, so that it's no longer the mountains that are valued but rather the rare earth elements inside them.
Rare earth elements aren't actually all that rare—just hard to find in concentrations that can be mined profitably. And while they have many unique utilities, one of the big ones is in the manufacture of powerful, lightweight magnets, as found in computer hard drives. They're also useful in flat-screen monitors, jet engines, lasers, and other things in which the U.S. military takes an interest. Right now, about 95 percent of the world's supply comes from China.

Midway through 2010, however, in an effort to feed a growing appetite for gadgets at home, China slashed exports of these metals. Prices climbed. The Pentagon freaked. Rare earth elements became an issue of national security.

Just as I set out past the towering cairn of 7,280-foot-high Wind Mountain, a truck pulled up, and out came Bobby Jones, a rancher whose family has been raising cattle on Otero Mesa since his great-grandfather came through these parts in the late 1870s, just about the time when white settlers could first make a life on the mesa without fearing Apache reprisal.

Jones, who is 60 years old and resembles the Marlboro Man, has had 10 years' experience fighting oil and gas drilling. But now, he said, he felt caught between two 800-pound gorillas. In April 2011, a year after China kinked the hose on rare earth exports, Colorado congressman Mike Coffman introduced a bill designed to increase domestic mining of rare earth elements. That same month, the Colorado-based Geovic Mining Corporation announced that it had finished staking out five square miles of mining claims near the Cornudas Mountains.

Jones and I talked for more than an hour on a hilltop near his ranch. He doesn't want mining in Otero Mesa, but he also doesn't want it to become a national monument. Despite assurances to the contrary, he's afraid that if the mesa becomes a monument, he'll lose 85,000 acres of grazing privileges.

He's also renting land to Geovic for equipment storage, he said, so these may be bought-and-paid-for opinions, but I got the sense that Jones is a man who believes to his core that government should be as small as possible. "Mitt Romney is too liberal for me," he said at one point.

Other local ranchers echoed Jones's concerns, and while they're not the most outspoken bunch—they mostly want to be left alone—they helped persuade the Otero County Commission to pass an ordinance in May 2010 that opposes the designation of Otero Mesa as a national monument. On the other side of that fight is the Coalition for Otero Mesa, which has drawn together a diverse array of locals, elected officials, and national environmental organizations to lobby "for permanent protection of this rare and beautiful grassland."

I spent the rest of the afternoon meandering through the mountains, boosting up and down gravel inclines in the still air. My only rest was a stop at a mining claim beside the road: two wooden stakes in the ground marked with orange tape. It's unclear exactly what type of mine Geovic plans to build in Otero Mesa, but a similar project in Texas took the form of a vast, open pit.

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