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Crossposted from: UNBOSSED

There has been a MAJOR environmental victory in northern New Mexico.

The Valle Vidal has been permanently protected by an act of Congress.

Legislation to block oil and gas drilling in the Valle Vidal is heading to President Bush's desk for signature into law following a 180-degree turn by Sen. Pete Domenici.

After holding up the bill for nearly four months, the Albuquerque Republican announced Thursday that he and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Silver City Democrat, would try to pass the bill quickly through the lame-duck session of Congress, without any legislative hearings or a vote by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee they lead.

Hours later, the Senate approved the bill unanimously.

[snip]

The action represents a victory for thousands of New Mexicans who protested by letter, phone calls and e-mail when the U.S. Forest Service said it would study whether to allow oil and gas development on a 40,000-acre portion of the 101,794 acre preserve north of Taos.

[snip]

When El Paso Corp., one of the nation's largest natural gas companies, requested the Forest Service study, conservation, environmental, hunting, fishing and tourism groups joined to form a coalition to protect the Valle Vidal, calling it a "veritable Rocky Mountain paradise," with populations of mule deer, black bear, mountain lion, bald eagles, native Rio Grande cutthroat trout and the largest elk herd in New Mexico.

[snip]

Domenici explained Thursday that he was worried that pushing for Valle Vidal protections might affect his bill to expand oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to within 125 miles of Florida's coast. That bill is stalled over disagreements with the House.

"I have been concerned about being perceived as pushing for or even forcing energy production in other states while saying `not in my backyard' in New Mexico. However, at this point, I believe we can, and should, try to enact the Valle Vidal Protection Act," he said.

Why is this victory so important? The Valle Vidal victory represents the first significant win in the myriad oil and gas battles being waged across the West (some of these below with the hope that you all can help these other groups out).  Local folks have stood up and waged a David vs Goliath fight against a major oil and gas giant.  This victory opens the gates for still more victories. These rapacious companies are attacking our health, our economies and our land - they must be stopped.  This was step one.

What is the Valle Vidal?

The Valle Vidal, (Spanish for “Valley of Life,”) is a lush, 100,000-acre mountain basin in the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. This majestic landscape, chock full of breathtaking vistas and abundant wildlife, make it New Mexico’s Yellowstone. The Jicarilla Apache and the Ute and Pueblo cultures trace their roots to the Valle Vidal, where Little Costilla Peak, the third-highest peak in New Mexico, rises to 12,584 feet from a blanket of green meadows and mixed conifer forest (PHOTOS AVAILABLE HERE)

In 1982, Pennzoil Company donated the Valle Vidal to the American people as part of the Carson National Forest. For more than 24 years, the Forest Service, in cooperation with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the citizens of New Mexico, has managed this multiple-use area for the preservation of its wildlife and its outstanding scenic and recreational opportunities – as promised at the dedication of Valle Vidal in 1985.  Thus far, they've done a damn good job.

The cooperative management of the area has ensured that the Valle Vidal’s abundant wildlife (60 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 33 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 15 species of fish) has flourished. Elk, deer, turkey, black bear, bald eagles, coyotes and buffalo are often visible, making the Valle Vidal an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. The valley attracts horsemen from across the country and is a sweet place for backpacking, bird watching, and outdoor photography. Sportsmen can fish for cutthroat trout and hunt elk in one of the top elk ranges in the nation.  The bird watching is incredible. This area is the critical winter range for numerous wildlife species and is the primary winter and calving grounds for 2,500 elk - New Mexico's largest herd. It is also and a primary restoration area for the native Rio Grande cutthroat trout. The economic benefit from recreational activities such as these, especially important for the rural communities and businesses of northern New Mexico, is around $3-5 million a year.  As I've said in my Conservation Economy series (accessible here) protected public lands are key to the future of Western Communities.  So, for us in northern New Mexico, this is an immensly important place.

In early 2002, the Houston, Texas-based energy company, El Paso Corporation, petitioned the Forest Service to open the Valle Vidal’s eastern 40,000 acres to coalbed methane (natural gas) development.  This, of course was a direct challenge to the Forest Service’s ecologically balanced management of the Valle Vidal in 2002.  There were no legal or legislative prescriptions in place to protect the Valle Vidal from oil and gas development.

Although the El Paso Corporation has petitioned for the Valle Vidal to be leased, the Forest Service has stated  that it would not address oil and gas development within the new plan for Valle Vidal (a possible violation of NEPA). The agency, by not retaining the authority to say “no” to leasing, is saying “yes” because any area that has not been “specifically withdrawn” is by default open to leasing, despite the recommendations by the 1986 Carson National Forest Plan. As a result, the Forest Service process, being run out of DC was inherently flawed and strongly favored coalbed methane development above the needs and wishes of the local people.

Then the White House got in on the act.  In early 2004, the White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining sent a memorandum to the Forest Service requesting an expedited response from the Forest Service concerning El Paso’s leasing petition and an analysis of whether or not “environmental conditions would restrict or prohibit the exploration of natural gas within the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest.” Subsequently, the Forest Service contracted out the preparation of a Reasonable Foreseeable Development Scenario to assess the Valle Vidal’s mineral resource for natural gas.  Basically, this was a "hurry up and get this area drilled" sort of thing.

In the summer of 2004 the Forest Service released its Reasonable Foreseeable Development – an estimate of how much gas could be produced – noting that Valle Vidal would only produce enough gas to supply the nation with approximately .5 to 2.5 days of gas. The variation depended on the number of wells drilled and the spacing between the wells.

In any case, in 2003 the Coalition for the Valle Vidal formed.  Made up of ranchers, sportsmen, local elected officials, environmentalists and area businesses.  The Coalition for the Valle Vidal found that due to the Forest Service's determination to open the area to oil and gas drilling, we had to put as many roadblocks in thier way as possoble and at the same time fight to get the area PERMANENTLY protected.  I did not want my samall daiughter to fight this same battle twenty years hence.  We did several things.

In December 2005, we petitioned and got the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission to protect all the waters in the Valle Vidal under the provisions of the Outstanding National Resource Water – Clean Water Act. In May 2006, we were able to get the Valle Vidal included in Governor Bill Richardson’s Roadless Petition to Forest Service.  These two moves were not silver bullets , they would not offer the are permenent protection BUT they would serve as significant roadblocks to potential development.

Our ultimate goal was permanent protection of Valle Vidal by means of federal legislation.  This legislation would wiithdrawl the area from mineral leasing.  We were able to get Rep. Tom Udall to introduce the Valle Vidal Protection Act in the fall of 2005 (the text of our bill is below).  On July 24, 2006 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill.  For months, Sen. Domenici held the bill up in the Senate.  Finally, I'm sure taking stock of the election results, Domenici came on board and got our bill through.  Now, it only awaits Bush's signature.

Here is the text of our bill:

109th CONGRESS

1st Session

H. R. 3817

To withdraw the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest in New Mexico from location, entry, and patent under the

mining laws, and for other purposes.

IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

September 15, 2005

Mr. UDALL of New Mexico introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on Resources

A BILL

To withdraw the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest in New Mexico from location, entry, and patent under the

mining laws, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.

This Act may be cited as the `Valle Vidal Protection Act of 2005'.

SEC. 2. WITHDRAWAL OF VALLE VIDAL UNIT, CARSON NATIONAL FOREST,

NEW MEXICO, FROM MINING LAWS.

(a) Withdrawal− Subject to subsection (b), the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, which

consists of 101,794 acres and is identified as Management Area 21 in the land and resource management plan for the

Carson National Forest, is hereby withdrawn from−−

(1) all forms of entry, appropriation, and disposal under the public land laws;

(2) location, entry, and patent under the mining laws; and

(3) operation of the mineral leasing and geothermal leasing laws and mineral materials laws.

(b) Treatment of Existing Rights− The withdrawal required by subsection (a) is subject to valid existing rights. If these

existing rights are relinquished or otherwise acquired by the United States at any time after the date of the enactment of

this Act, the lands that were subject to the rights shall be immediately withdrawn as provided in subsection (a).

END

We have alot of work left to do.  The Forest Service management plan is far from complete.  Over the next 6-12 months we have to work with our allies and citizens from all over the country to makes sure the Forest Service develops a management plan that reflects the values expressed by the people of northern New Mexico over the last three years.  We could still use your help.  If you would like to be notified of actions you can take over the next year to assure the proper management of the Valle Vidal, please join our list serve.  Click here and then click on JOIN OUR NEWSGROUP LISTSERVE.

Battles Yet To Be Won

Please check out these amazing places that are currently under threat of oil and gas development and please, if you can, support thier efforts.

Otero Mesa, New Mexico
HD Mountains, Colorado
Roan Plateau, Colorado
Upper Green River Valley, Wyoming
Grand Mesa Slopes, Colorado
Vermillion Basin, Colorado
Rocky Mountain Front, Montana
Wyoming Range, Wyoming
Red Desert, Wyoming
Redrock Wilderness, Utah
Beartooth Front, Wyoming
Clear Fork Divide, Colorado

Originally posted to environmentalist on Tue Nov 21, 2006 at 12:25 PM PST.

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