Plundering A New Mexico Treasure

Houston-Based El Paso Corporation Hopes To Use Close Ties To The White House To Gain Drilling Access To Valle Vidal. But Not Without A Fight.

Jeremy Vesbach
12 min read
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Talk to anyone who's spent at least an hour there, or to many of the area residents who have spent decades exploring the area, and they'll tell you the Valle Vidal is one of the most beautiful places in New Mexico. It's got 2,500 elk. It's got wild turkeys. Its got Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, the second largest Bristlecone Pine Tree in the world, and has even been ranked third best camping area in America (according to It's got excellent mountain biking, an awesome geological feature known as the rock wall, forested peaks, flowing meadows and clear mountain streams. It's got 750,000 Boy Scout alumni with memories of a 12-day outdoor adventure there or at the neighboring Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. More than 2,700 people from around the world apply for a chance to hunt elk there every year.

Getting the picture? People, all sorts of people, really, truly love the place. Columnists from Oklahoma proclaim it their favorite spot on Earth. Nice people from Texas tell other Texans to go camping there, and some people from New Mexico talk about the Valle Vidal until you finally just have to change the subject.

Then there's El Paso Corporation, a Houston-based energy giant, which loves the Valle Vidal too, you might say—but in a different sort of way. The company would like very much to cover the eastern half of the Valle Vidal with a couple hundred wells and a network of new roads in order to extract methane from the coal seams deep below the surface.

Coal-bed methane is a relatively new way to extract methane from coal seams that requires a rash of wells linked by a spiderweb of newly bulldozed roads. There is no environmentally benign way to do this, regardless of any communication specialist's proclamations to the contrary.

“It's a whole different animal (from other forms of energy development),” in the words of Raton business owner Alan Lackey.

Lackey was pleased when he first heard, a little over five years ago, that Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch, which borders the Valle Vidal, would be drilled for natural gas.

“When gas development started on the Vermejo, I thought originally it was a great thing,” he said. “It would provide jobs and, if done right, wouldn't be that big of a deal. But this coal-bed methane—it's just a frightful development that is going to leave the land scarred.”

As a young man, Lackey worked as a cowboy on the Vermejo Ranch—back when the Valle Vidal was actually a part of the ranch's holdings—before the 100,000-acre Valle Vidal portion was donated to the public in 1982.

Ted Turner does not own the subsurface rights to his Vermejo property, and so was unable to prevent the federal government from leasing them to private energy interests. However, Turner has been able to impose tight regulations on the drilling, according to Forest Service officials. As a result, the coal-bed methane development on Vermejo is roundly cited as an example of “as environmentally sensitive as it gets”—which is all the more scary to folks concerned about drilling on public lands.

Lackey, an avid hunter, fisherman and outdoor enthusiast, guides horseback trips into the Valle Vidal, and for the past 12 years he has guided elk hunts on Turner's Vermejo Ranch as well.

“The scenic value of the land and the hunting experience are being compromised,” Lackey said, “Even though they are saying it's the best coal-bed methane development that's been done—well, it still has industrialized the landscape.”

Lackey, anticipating that the El Paso Corporation would soon be looking to expand operations across the fence into the Valle Vidal, started checking with the Forest Service to see if there had been any petitions to lease the mineral rights. His hunch was spot on. El Paso requested to lease the eastern half of the Valle Vidal in May of 2002 for coal-bed methane development.

Lackey immediately began working the grassroots to organize against the prospect, and with help from the Oil and Gas Accountability Project in El Prado, New Mexico, he helped to form the new Coalition for the Valle Vidal—a collection of fishermen, hunters, environmentalists, ranchers and backcountry guides.

Meanwhile, El Paso Corporation, a generous campaign contributor to Bush-Cheney 2000 presidential campaign and concerned that things were not progressing fast enough, took their concerns straight to the top.

In July of 2003, El Paso Corporation complained that the local Forest Service Unit was taking too much time analyzing the development proposal's environmental impacts.

Soon Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force was pressuring the Carson Forest Service to speed things along, according to former Carson National Forest geologist Rebecca Doolittle.

“The White House Energy Task Force said we had to look at the timeline for doing our Environmental Impact Statement,” said Doolittle. “They didn't like us taking one whole year to do a watershed study. It was really frustrating.”

Budgetary constraints have so far prevented the EIS process from hitting the fast track, with a completion date now set at 2007; but Lackey holds no illusions about the difficulty of what he and the coalition of others are up against.

“There are good people here (in New Mexico) in the federal agencies who don't want to see this happen, but they are just political puppets in this—the decisions come from the top,” said Lackey.

El Paso Corporation, Big Debts, Big Connections

“The bigger picture,” said El Paso Corporation spokesperson Kim Wallace in an interview with the Alibi last week, “is that the U.S. is in need of more domestic energy sources. To get there we will have to depend more on nonconventional sources, like coal-bed methane, to drive the economy.”

Compare that to what Wallace told the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle in February: “The bigger picture is the United States is in need of more domestic energy sources. To get there we have to depend more on nonconventional sources to help provide low-cost energy which will drive the economy.”

Does she read from a script, or is the El Paso communications office staffed with robots?

Here's another example. “The big picture,” Wallace told me, “is that we've asked the Forest Service to conduct an environmental impact study, which is a very stringent analysis and covers everything from bird migratory patterns to archaelogical indices.”

“The big picture,” Wallace told the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle in February, “is that we've asked the Forest Service to conduct an environmental impact study. The EIS is very stringent and covers everything from bird migratory patterns to archaelogical indices.”

Wallace is extremely polite, with a sweet drawl and charming demeanor—for a robot.

Another spokesperson at El Paso Corporation, Mel Scott, added this spin: “The Valle Vidal is not virgin ground, it's been touched in the past by loggers.”

But before we get into dissecting all this spin, here are a few facts:

• Former Vice President of El Paso Merchant Energy (a subsidiary of El Paso Corp) Todd Geiger pled guilty in December 2003 for price-fixing during the California Energy Crisis (and he wasn't fixing prices downward). The potential sentence includes jail time and a $500,000 fine.

• El Paso Corporation itself agreed to pay California $1.6 billion in an out-of-court settlement rather than face price fixing charges.

• The company is now around $24 billion in debt (stock prices plunged 80 percent following the price-fixing charges) and has named new energy exploration as one of the methods it will use to help climb out of debt, according to a company report.

• Last month, the company announced that it received a letter from the Securities and Exchange Commission stating that the SEC is conducting a formal investigation of the company. The letter was accompanied by a subpoena requesting the production of documents related to the company’s recently announced reserve revisions.

• The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that proposals by Cheney's Energy Task Force to maximize oil and gas drilling in sensitive wildlife areas and other parts of western public lands “would increase gas supplies less than one percent and save the average household $5 per year through 2020.” So you save a Happy Meal.

• El Paso Corporation contributed $787,000 to help elect Bush-Cheney in 2000.

• Every summer 22,000 boy scouts from around the world come to the Valle Vidal for a 12-day backcountry trip. In addition to that, there is a waiting list of 25,000 young men who'd like to come. The Valle Vidal, in its present condition, allows the Philmont Scout Ranch to open the experience to an additional 3,000 boy scouts every summer.

OK, back to the arguments from the El Paso communications office. Actually, forget the spin. Let's skip to the heart of the matter. How to stop one of New Mexico's most pristine places from getting covered with around 200 well sites and a network of new roads?

“It's going to take a lot of noise from a lot of people to get any kind of attention,” said Lackey, who sees hope in the effort to protect Otero Mesa—and the strong position Gov. Bill Richardson has taken in battling Bush appointees with ties to the energy company that wants to drill there. But Richardson is breaking new ground, and it remains to be seen whether or not he can stop the department of interior from opening Otero Mesa to private development.

Oscar Simpson, president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, which counts hunters and fishermen among its members, agrees that political pressure is necessary to stop any drilling in the Valle Vidal.

“The only way we can stop this is, politically, to get enough people to say not just no, but hell no,” said Simpson, “There are some places that are too unique that we need to protect.”

Elk Hunters for Kerry?

Bush and Cheney aren't exactly counting on the environmentalist vote this fall; however, there are around 47 million sportsmen in the United States, and of those who voted, around 68 percent voted for Bush-Cheney in 2000, according to estimates by the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, a D.C.-based advocacy organization whose board of directors includes corporate representatives from outdoor gear and apparel manufacturers.

Without that overwhelming support of hunters and fishermen, the people now in charge of lands managed by the federal government would still be working for the oil and gas industries. And this has angered a growing number of conservative sportsmen who are beginning to speak of a double-cross.

Tony Dean, the host of a popular outdoors show on television, has written in the publication Outdoors Unlimited that, “Saying you are a friend of sportsmen because you support gun ownership, while using it to hide the dismantling of America's conservation policies, is patently dishonest.”

Ryan Busse, vice president of the Kimber Manufacturing Company, (a high-end rifle-maker located in Kalispell, Montana), traveled to D.C. with Raton's Alan Lackey and told reporters that because of the administration's support for drilling in Montana hunting grounds, “This year's presidential election will probably be the first time in my life that I will have voted for somebody other than a Republican in a national election.”

Lackey also voted for Bush in 2000, believing what Bush said about the importance of conservation.

“Bush said that we can use the best technology to provide protection for the environment while providing energy for the country, but that was all double-speak,” said Lackey, “What they have going is just the opposite. It's a raid on our public resources and a double-cross to sportsmen and outdoors people.”

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has already shown an interest in trying to win over some of the reel and rifle crowd, now that he has demonstrated his prowess as a snowboarder and windsurfer. On an Iowa pheasant hunting trip, Kerry told reporters of his desire to extend the assault weapon ban and require unlicensed dealers to do background checks at gun shows, which was obviously antithetical to the die-hard gun lobby. But he did prove that he's a good shot (two dead pheasants in two shots) and that he's willing to take flak from animal rights activists to win over sportsmen.

Compare that to George W. Bush's most famous hunting trip. In 1994, Bush staged a dove hunt to help win over the sportsmen while he was running for Texas governor. But in one of seven shots, he accidentally shot a protected shorebird known as a killdeer and had to pay the fine. Still, just how many hunters and fishermen will give Bush the ultimatum over public lands oil and gas development remains to be seen.

“I think it's a real galvanizing issue for the hunter and angler,” says Lackey. “We are ready to lose the last wild places that we can enjoy as a public, and I'm trying to get the word out to as many people as I can.”

Oscar Simpson, who, like Lackey, voted for Bush the first time around, says that worries of Kerry taking away hunting rifles is “a bunch of hype,” and that “the Bush administration should be held accountable for letting industry get away with murder.”

The fight for Otero Mesa brought in hunting groups from across the state to argue directly against the Bush administration appointees for greater protections in the area. Valle Vidal, one of New Mexico's most treasured elk hunting opportunities, could bring a lot of the rest. A lot of conservative people find it downright outrageous that anyone would favor drilling right in the wintering range and spring calving grounds for 2,500 elk—particularly someone who actively courted the sportsman vote as Bush and Cheney did.

And don't forget those Boy Scouts.

Come November, who knows, we might hear more people echoing the words of Mr. Lackey. “In good conscience I cannot vote for anyone that has this kind of lack of respect for the natural world. It's our nest and we're fixing to spoil it.”

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