Marita Noon

No wonder the national debt is at nearly $17 trillion—and ticking higher every day. Polls repeatedly show most Americans believe that reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority, yet policy gets in the way of democracy and prevents practical solutions.


I’ve previously participated in, and reported on, various public meetings and hearings where the local citizens rally to draw media attention to their plight and plead with the government agencies that control their economic future.


Some of these stories include the Otero County Tree Party where hundreds of residents of a small mountain community, who live in fear of fires fed by overgrown forests—due to management designed to save the habitat of an endangered species—gathered to force the Forest Service to stop fighting them and start cooperating. I was honored to play a part in the Tree Party. They’ve had success! County Commissioner Ronny Rardin told me it would have never happened without the public outcry. Using a newly created County Compliance Program, non-violent people charged with a misdemeanor avoid jail time and do community service by cutting down selected trees and thinning the forest—saving money for both the county and the Forest Service, while saving the community from a wildfire’s devastation.


Hundreds of people gathered in an airplane hangar to protest the endangered-species listing of the sand dune lizard that could have severely hampered oil and gas extraction and ranching in the region and killed the economic base of local communities. I was one of the speakers at the rally. At the post-rally hearing, people waited into the night for the opportunity to express their opinion to the bureaucrats from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). After an 18-month battle, the answer came back from Washington, DC. The sand dune lizard escaped listing, oil and gas development and ranching activities continue in the Permian Basin region of Texas and New Mexico.


Now, the people in the Permian Basin are joined by those in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma to fight the proposed listing of the lesser prairie chicken—which would wreak similar economic havoc as the sand dune lizard listing (this time to a larger region). In February, I emceed the hangar-held rally and attended the public comment session manned by FWS staff. The comment period was cut off before everyone who wanted to could voice their opinion—leaving angry, unheard, citizens. Pressure has been put on Senators, as their constituents inundated their offices with calls asking them to use their weight to stop the lesser prairie chicken listing. As a result of the effort, on May 9, Senator Tom Udall’s (D-NM) office released a statement supporting the plan to prevent the listing of the lesser prairie chicken: Senator Udall “believes that the Five State Plan, if done correctly, can be a win-win solution resulting in habitat protection and regulatory certainty for the farmers, ranchers, and the oil and gas industry. Senator Udall continues to be engaged with the Administration to ensure the Five State Plan receives proper consideration and has every opportunity to succeed in its goal.”


On May 8, I drove 2.5 hours to attend a public meeting about a new management plan for federal lands in three New Mexico counties—it was the last of three such public meetings. The plan was outlined, but attendees were not allowed to ask questions or comment during the presentation. Maps lined the room’s perimeter. In short, myriad acts and laws have to be taken into account in the management of public lands including the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA)—just to name a few. By the time all of these layers of regulation are applied to nominated portions of federal lands, virtually all economic activity is prohibited or severely limited—including ranching/grazing, mining, and oil and gas extraction. Even recreational uses, such as off-highway vehicles (OHV), can be banned or severely restricted.


After the 2-hour session, I felt agitated and frustrated. In the brief public presentation, we were told that they were holding these meetings because NEPA requires public participation. However, unlike the other public meetings I’ve attended, no public comment was allowed at the meeting. Additionally, when attendees were instructed on how provide written comment, we were told that we were to offer only “substantive comments” on the data and/or the science—not to vote in favor of, or opposition to, the Resource Management Plan (RMP).


Following the meeting, I spent time with Bill Childress, the District Manager for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the Las Cruces office and Dave Wallace, the Assistant District Manager. I pointed out that their format discourages public comment, as no average person is ever going to read the 500+ page document—or be able to offer comment on the science or the data. “That’s the way it is,” was the response.


Regarding the BLM’s comment process, Joanne Spivack, an activist fighting the closure of roads and trails to motorized use, told me: “The only thing that matters are comments that specifically challenge how the RMP analysis is being done. That’s what ‘substantive’ means. 99.999% of the public don’t understand what that means. It takes a firm understanding of the NEPA process to write a comment that can challenge the agency and lead to an appeal (and lawsuit). The only things we can submit that can be used for our appeals, or in a lawsuit, are our formal comments submitted by the deadline. Those comments must be based solely on what is in the written Draft RMP and its associated documents.”


With Childress and Wallace, another meeting attendee and I discussed the known oil and gas resources and the potential presence of rare-earth elements. The TriCounty RMP designates several ACECs (Area of Critical Environmental Concern)—which are essentially managed as “wilderness areas,” though ACECs are not designated by Congress. Childress and Wallace explained that the process of creating ACECs is at the discretion of the Bureau; it is qualitative not quantitative, and subjective. They told us that generally conservation groups nominate the ACECs. Spivack noted: “There is no place or time in the process for the public to oppose the ACECs.”


Surprise! The Wilderness Society’s website offers their “Wish List for the BLM in 2013”—which includes: “Designate Otero Mesa as an ACEC in the TriCounty RMP and initiate an administrative mineral withdrawal for the area to protect its innumerable natural and cultural resources.”


The proposed 198,511-acre ACEC for Otero Mesa includes the following potential resource-use limitations:

  • Exclusion and limitations of new rights-of way,

  • Closure to mineral sales and geothermal leasing,

  • Closure to vegetation sales, and

  • Limitation of vehicle use to designated routes.


Spivack explains it this way: “The RMP doesn’t have specifics about what will be banned, why or where. There are no facts, no analysis and no proof that an ACEC is needed. But the RMP lays the groundwork for future lock-downs, by creating ‘conceptual’ frameworks such as ‘desired conditions’ and by creating new designation areas like ACECs. The RMPs have vague wording about future restrictions, which could be imposed in order to ‘protect the values’ of the ACEC. The ACEC is a way of creating management ‘goals’ which trump multiple use. The ACEC is a blank check and can be used restrict any activity under any excuse they want to cook up.”


The Otero Mesa portion of the BLM managed lands has the potential for oil and gas resources, and rare-earth elements. Due to existing land-use restrictions—before the proposed RMP is even implemented—a company interested in developing the rare earths was required to do its minimal-impact exploration with 19th century technology: horses and hand tools. When the exploration was complete, a hand rake was used to erase the footprints and restore the land. A company executive reported: “The RMP has the potential to adversely impact future mineral development.”


Commissioner Rardin and all his fellow county commissioners in Otero County are excited about the potential economic benefit the rare-earth mining project could bring: $25 million in the first year alone. Rardin believes one of the goals of the RMP is to stop the mining project. He told me: “The BLM is taking away our ability to make a living. As long as I am commissioner, I will challenge them and look to properly use our lands.” In Otero Country—a county as big as the state of Connecticut with 62,000 residents, only 12% of the land is taxable. The potential for mineral extraction, including oil and gas, is important for the community—and the people want it. Locking up the resources constitutes a government taking.


Ranchers in the region feel the same way. Steve Wilmeth, a rancher from southern New Mexico whose family came to New Mexico beginning in 1880, wrote about these attacks on the culture and customs of the West: “Increasingly, Westerners are governed not by laws, but by policy and regulations. Local governance isn’t planning or crafting solutions for communities. Rather, local governance is defending itself against the latest project being driven by conservation cooperation agreements.” Regarding the policies to be instituted and policed by the agencies, Wilmeth, in The Westerner, writes: “There is no grassroots land planning in this debacle. This is an end-run legislative proxy. It is being engineered by the environmental brokers.”


Addressing the proposed ACECs, Wilmeth’s comments echo Spivack’s. He told me: “The BLM, by FLPMA authority, can designate ACECs. In the draft, you will notice they are intending to manage the Nutt Grassland ACEC (newly declared) as a Wilderness Study Area, as if it is being prepped for “Wilderness” status. FLPMA does not make that a mandatory action. So, we might not be immediately forced out of an ACEC, but the BLM, in their conservation cooperative action with environmental groups, is shaping and managing toward de facto wilderness without Congressional authority.”


In addition to his dawn-to-dusk ranching responsibilities, Wilmeth, representing the Council of Border Conservation Districts, the New Mexico Coalition of Conservation Districts, and the Doña Ana Soil and Water Conservation District; County Commissioners such as Rardin; oil and gas companies with a stake in the outcome; and OHV organizations are each working through the Draft RMP to address their opposition to this latest federal land grab and will have their comments in by the July 11 deadline. Will you join them? This may seem like just a New Mexico issue, but the same thing is happening in many locales throughout the West—where most states have a high percentage of federally managed land. I am sure readers could tell me similar stories from the surrounding states.


When the ranchers hate it; the county commissioners oppose it; the OHV folks are fighting it; and the miners and oil and gas companies can’t stand it—but, the environmental organizations in cooperation with the government agencies are for it—you know you’ve got a project that will stop all potential economic input. Once again, policy trumps growth and economic potential.


When Americans have to fight their own government for their economic survival, you know something has to change.


Marita Noon

Marita Noon is Executive Director of Energy Makes America Great.