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          Front Page  news  state

Gov. Urges President on Mesa

By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
          LAS CRUCES — Gov. Bill Richardson has taken another step in his effort to protect sweeping grasslands on the Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico by urging President Barack Obama to designate 1.2 million acres of federal land a national monument.
        Richardson's move was welcomed by conservationists, but received a cool response from the Oil and Gas Association and Congressman-elect Steve Pearce.
        While the president could designate Otero Mesa a national monument by executive order and bypass congressional approval, New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman prefers that a consensus around such a designation is developed before that step is taken, said spokeswoman Jude McCartin.
        "The local groundswell of support has not yet been achieved," McCartin said Friday.
        In February, Otero Mesa was one of 14 sites around the nation identified as potential candidates for monument status in a draft Interior Department document leaked to a Utah congressman.
        Otero Mesa, a broad plateau between the Sacramento and Guadalupe mountain ranges, contains what conservationists call the largest and wildest Chihuahuan desert grassland remaining on public lands in the United States. The mesa is home to more than 1,000 native plant and animal species, including black-tailed prairie dogs, mountain lions, the endangered aplomado falcon and the state's healthiest herd of pronghorn antelope.
        "Now is the time to formally recognize the value of this rare but unprotected landscape and protect it for future generations...." Richardson wrote in an Oct. 25 letter to the president.
        Otero Mesa has been at the center of a nine-year struggle over whether the Bureau of Land Management should allow natural gas extraction.
        In 2007 Bingaman, former Sen. Pete Domenici and then-Rep. Tom Udall, now New Mexico's junior senator, urged the BLM to postpone oil and gas development on the mesa until a study on the Salt Basin Aquifer, a huge water resource under the mesa, was completed.
        The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission is overseeing a two-phase study examining the Salt Basin's annual recharge and the location, quality and movement of water in the aquifer. Craig Roepke, deputy director of the ISC, said it could be several years before the entire study is completed.
        Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said he preferred an earlier BLM plan, challenged by the state, that allowed for restricted oil and natural gas leases, and he said he doubted monument designation has local support.
        Pearce, a Republican who defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Harry Teague in Tuesday's election, questioned the cost of monument designation in terms of lost economic development and management costs.
        "We've got a lot of questions, and to be suggesting that we get this done by the end of the year is, in my mind, too rushed, too hurried," Pearce said.
        Whether Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is considering Otero Mesa as a serious candidate for recommendation to monument status is unclear. Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said: "The Secretary believes new designations and conservation initiatives work best when they build on local efforts and with the help and the support of the New Mexico congressional delegation to better manage places that are important to nearby communities."

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