Today, Worthen serves as the secretary for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and on July 15 he joined the organization's president, Oscar Simpson, at an Albuquerque press conference to state opposition to the Bush administration's support for drilling in Valle Vidal, a 40,0000-acre national forest in northern New Mexico and Otero Mesa, a more than 90,000-acre federal grassland in southern New Mexico.
To support their mission, Simpson unveiled what he called a “monumental, non-partisan” poll of New Mexico hunters and anglers conducted by Bellwether Research and Consulting in mid-June that he hopes will garner the White House's attention.
The poll is notable for its disconnect from familiar partisan battles between stereotypically liberal environmental groups and the stereotypically environmentally unfriendly Bush administration.
For starters, Simpson introduced himself as a Republican who voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Additionally, Bellwether, he said, is a noted Republican pollster.
The survey polled New Mexicans from a list of 300 licensed hunters and anglers, all of whom said they were currently registered to vote.
Seventy-one percent of the respondents voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 39 percent identified themselves as members of the National Rifle Association. When asked, “How important are wildlife and conservation issues in deciding your vote for president?” 42 percent said, “very important,” 44 percent replied, “somewhat important.”
“We're conservative and the key thing is hunters and anglers are concerned about conservation, wildlife and gun rights,” he said.
For Simpson, the Bellwether poll bares witness to his organization's purpose. He said sportsmen are committed to protecting Valle Vidal and Otero Mesa from energy development, highlighting with help from PowerPoint that 64 percent of the respondents favored preservation instead of energy development.
Nonetheless, the White House's energy task force (whose members are unknown to the public) supports Houston-based El Paso Corporation's permit request for 1,000 wells and a network of new roads to be constructed in the Valle Vidal in the coming years. Yet Simpson said that traffic, pollution and erosion would destroy “New Mexico's Yellowstone,” if the permit request is approved by the U.S. Forest Service. He said drilling pads on adjacent land already menaces the wildlife and sanctity of an area that is home to black bear, wild turkey, buffalo and trophy elk.
“There is always legal recourse, and we are prepared to take those measures if necessary,” said Simpson at the close of the press conference. “We're not saying ’no,' but ’hell no' to drilling.”
Valle Vidal was donated to the federal government in the '80s by Pennzoil Corporation and today is part of the Carson National Forest.
Martin Chavez, the forest supervisor, said a “reasonable foreseeable development scenario,” or RFDS, will be posted on the Carson National Forest website by July 30. It will analyze the area's coalbed methane supply, which El Paso Corporation aims to extract. He said after the results are posted, a survey of the wildlife habitat, among other environmental studies, will have to be done to update the area's “multi-use” designation.
“Then about 2006 or 2007, we will conduct an environmental impact statement that will basically decide the oil and gas leasing in the area,” Chavez said. “It will describe the stipulations for developing the coal-bed methane, or not. Then I'll make the decision.”