Conservation Groups Urge BLM To Increase Wildlife Protections In Southern New Mexico

New Mexico Wilderness Alliance ● The Wilderness Society ● Sierra Club: Rio Grande Chapter ● Southwest Environmental Center ● National Wildlife Federation ● Audubon New Mexico ● New Mexico Wildlife Federation ● Southwest Consolidated Sportsmen ● Dona Ana County Associated Sportsmen ● Environment New Mexico ● Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument Coalition

A coalition of conservation, hunting, and outdoor recreation groups is calling on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to beef up protections for wildlife and wild places in a proposed 20-year management plan for 2.82 million acres of federal public lands in Dona Ana, Otero and Sierra Counties. The groups submitted their comments (attached) in response to the BLM’s Tri-County Draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement.

The groups believe that management actions proposed by BLM in the plan are not up to the task of protecting the area’s important resources against threats such as off-road vehicle use, oil and gas drilling, and climate change. In addition, they say that the BLM’s plan is handicapped by a lack of basic information about important resources under its control needed to make sound long-term management decisions.

“Southern New Mexico contains a wealth of wildlife, wilderness-quality lands, cultural and historical sites, important ecosystems and unparalleled opportunities for enjoying nature,” said Judy Calman, staff attorney with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance (NMWA). “The BLM needs to do much more to ensure that this plan adequately protects these resources over the next two decades.”

The groups pointed to Otero Mesa as an example of where the BLM’s plan falls short. In 2008, many of the same groups urged BLM to establish a 583,837 acre Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) to protect the unique wildlife, grasslands and wilderness of the greater Otero Mesa ecosystem. To protect those values, they recommended that the entire area be put off-limits to incompatible activities such as off-road vehicles, oil and gas development and mining. Instead, BLM proposed to set aside less than 200,000 acres as a new ACEC, with few new protections.

“It is encouraging that BLM has recognized the unique and significant values of Otero Mesa, but without the management measures to back it up, the proposed new ACEC designation is meaningless,” said Kevin Bixby, Executive Director of the Southwest Environmental Center. “The area would still be open to a host of activities that could destroy the reasons for seeking to protect this special place in the first place.”

The groups also criticized BLM’s handling of lands with wilderness characteristics in the plan. By law, the agency is required to maintain an inventory of blocks of land under its management that are fairly large, don’t have permanent roads, and hence might qualify for protection as wilderness. These areas are particularly important as wildlife habitat and for the opportunities they provide for outdoor recreation.

NMWA identified more than 365,000 such acres in the three counties and provided that information to BLM. In its Tri-County plan, however, BLM claimed to find only 11,500 acres of land with wilderness characteristics in the entire planning area, and recommended that less than 1000 acres be managed to protect those qualities. Conservationists later learned that BLM lacks an up-to-date inventory of wilderness quality lands in the three counties.

“The BLM’s conclusion that less than 1000 acres deserve protection as potential new wilderness out of nearly three million acres in the entire planning area defies explanation and is obviously not based on reality,” said Michael Casaus, New Mexico State Director for The Wilderness Society. “Good planning requires knowing what is at stake. BLM needs to go back to the drawing board and finish its inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics before finalizing the Tri-county plan.“

Similarly, the groups criticized BLM’s decision not to deal with oil and gas leasing in the plan. BLM has said it intends to defer oil and gas decisions until after the Tri-County plan is completed. But the groups say BLM is putting the horse before the cart. “Decisions about if, where and how to allow oil and gas leasing to occur will affect virtually every other resource and use on public lands’” said John Cornell, Sportsman Organizer with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “It makes no sense to make those decisions in a vacuum. Sound management dictates that BLM bring oil and gas back into the planning mix.” The groups are calling on BLM to conduct a supplemental environmental analysis to address oil and gas development prior to going forward with the Tri-county planning process.

The comments submitted by the groups also address management of lands within a proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peak National Monument, travel and recreation, other ACECs, visual resources, Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, renewable energy development, climate change, grazing, wild and scenic rivers, and wildlife and special status species.

The groups include New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club: Rio Grande Chapter, Southwest Environmental Center, National Wildlife Federation, Audubon New Mexico, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Southwest Consolidated Sportsmen, Dona Ana County Associated Sportsmen, Environment New Mexico and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument Coalition.

In addition to the comments submitted by the groups, more than 1200 New Mexicans submitted individual comments asking the BLM to strengthen the Resource Management Plan to protect Otero Mesa and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.

“This demonstrates that New Mexicans care deeply about protecting our special places for future generations," said Sanders Moore, Director, Environment New Mexico.