COMMENTARY: Southern New Mexico is blessed with a rich heritage of public lands and should have a strong voice in the discussion about how to protect and manage those public lands.
Right now, we have an opportunity to guide land-use decisions so that they weigh and balance the needs of all stakeholders: a Bureau of Land Management Resource Management Plan (RMP), which includes Otero Mesa. A draft RMP is expected this year, and by using our voices we can call on the BLM to use all of the tools at their disposal to create a balanced plan that adequately protects the Otero Mesa landscape.
Otero Mesa contains the largest and wildest Chihuahuan Desert grassland left in America. These lands house an incredible variety of native wildlife species including mule deer, mountain lion, black-tailed prairie dogs, golden and bald eagles, more than 200 species of migratory songbirds, as well as New Mexico’s healthiest herd of pronghorn antelope. Thousands of ancient petroglyphs and archaeological sites can be found on the volcanic mountains in the south. Otero Mesa sits above the Salt Basin Aquifer, the largest, untapped, fresh-water aquifer left in New Mexico.
The ecological and cultural significance of this area cannot be understated. Protecting these lands from harmful development protects our state’s heritage and ensures that future generations can continue to enjoy the same special places we have.
In their natural, healthy condition, our BLM public lands such as Otero Mesa have a positive impact on our state’s local economies. In 2014, there were 2.3 million visits to New Mexico’s public lands in which visitors hiked, hunted, rode horseback or otherwise enjoyed the outdoors in ways classified as “quiet” recreation. Those visits translated into $143 million spent directly on quiet recreation activities on BLM land and supported 1,712 local jobs. Those dollars and those jobs are key to our local economies and key to local businesses’ success.
Otero Mesa is threatened today, as is our groundwater and public safety. Last year a proposal was approved that allows boreholes to be drilled three miles deep under Otero Mesa in order to assess the potential for storing nuclear waste deep underground. Otero County residents and other southern New Mexicans are united in opposition to this project and seek ways to ensure that the Otero Mesa region is conserved as it is now.
During the regular legislative session, I was proud to stand with 28 of my colleagues in the House and Senate to sign a letter to BLM State Director Amy Lueders asking that the BLM work to find ways to thoughtfully protect Otero Mesa. In total, those of us who signed the letter represent almost 1 million constituents in 15 counties. We, and our constituents, know the value of public lands — and understand what’s at stake if we aren’t good stewards of the land.
For these reasons, as the BLM works to finalize the Resource Management Plan for Otero Mesa, we as a community must speak up and ask that the agency do all it can to conserve the landscape of Otero Mesa and the amazing resources it hosts. Public lands are part of who we are. Let’s raise our voices and make sure that our message is heard: Otero Mesa deserves to be protected. We’re looking to the BLM to help make that happen.
Bill Soules, a Democrat from Las Cruces, represents District 37 in the New Mexico Senate.