CARLSBAD, N.M. — With the resurgence of the oil and gas in Eddy County, local officials worry that extraction activities could compromise the mountain ranges, caves and karst lands that make the region unique.
That’s why conservation agencies partnered to take state, county and city leaders aboard a six-seat plane early September.
The goal was to highlight the contrast between wild and developed lands, in hopes of developing a balance by lobbying the Bureau of Land Management to designate certain areas off limits to the ongoing expansion, said John Cornell, New Mexico field representative of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
He hoped much of the public land can be preserved for recreational uses, while also maintaining the area’s natural resources.
“We just want to make sure development is done responsibly,” Cornell said. “There’s a lot of good hunting areas out there. We have to plan for the future.”
The flight took participants over the Guadalupe Mountains to Eddy County’s potash mines, and then above Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Several oil and gas developments were seen populating the areas between the mountains and local communities, often coming within miles of abutting each other.
To Cornell, a balance needs to be achieved.
“We want to get industry and local leaders to work together,” he said. “We don’t want to see tourism and recreation robbed by the industry. Those lands are important to people. I think we can go back to the producing areas to make some changes.”
Cornell said he does support the growth of the oil and gas industry as an economic boon for the area, but worried the operators often ignore natural landmarks and habitats on public lands, in favor of establishing developments nearby.
He hoped the BLM will consider preserving portions of the land with landmarks and heavy populations of native animals when leasing to developers.
“Oil and gas is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Cornell said. “Hopefully, they’re willing to not bully everyone and work together. You can drive and see these developments, but in the air you can really see the impact on the landscape.”
“THERE ARE PLACES YOU SHOULDN’T DRILL”
The flight was organized by Colorado-based Eco Flight, which gives flyovers of public lands throughout the country.
President of Eco Flight Bruce Gordon, who piloted the plane, said the organization’s goal is to raise awareness of industrial impacts on nearby land.
“Our mission is to educate and advocate for the environment,” he said. “We’re not against oil and gas, but we feel strongly that there are places where you shouldn’t drill.”
Gordon said better infrastructure planning could strike a balance between the industry and environment, using existing infrastructure rather than building anew.
“Many communities have not gotten ahead of this, and suffered from the boom and bust cycles,” he said. “From the air you can really see the impacts. My job is to get people up in the air, and not lean left or right politically, but have them educate themselves.
“How is it going to affect your air and water quality? Those are the kinds of questions people need to ask.”
From the plane as it soared over the Guadalupe Mountains, several mountains were visible, along with patterns of sedimentary erosion and karst landscapes.
Alongside the natural features were man-made formations, such as drill pads and service roads, which New Mexico Wilderness Alliance Grassroots Organizer Joelle Marier said could impact the area’s wildlife if the developments are not properly contained.
“We get a really good look at the undeveloped land that is bordering some extensive development,” she said of the flight. “There are ways for the industry to plan ahead to development more responsibly. Some of the development is already starting to push up against the wild areas.”
FRACTURING THE WILDERNESS
Marier estimated about 3,000 caves reside beneath the Guadalupes. She said they must be protected as the caves filter drinking water needed in local communities.
She said that influence of the industry could be mitigated if developers use existing infrastructure, such as roads, when developing new areas for drilling.
“It’s really about planning,” Marier said. “That’s where the community comes in. Maybe there are some areas that shouldn’t be developed.”
Back on the ground, Cornell said he was surprised to see how close oil and gas developments are to each other, and local communities.
Pointing to the Village of Loving, viewed from the plane, he said such a tight proximity could have a devastating effect on the wilderness.
“I didn’t realize the developments were right in town,” Cornell said. “That’s what really kills the wildlife, that fracturing (of wildlife).”
Stella Davis, chair of the Eddy County Board of County Commissioners agreed the lands must be preserved. She was optimistic that some of the rougher terrain could be inaccessible to the drills and piping of the extraction industry.
“Flying over the Guadalupe Mountains for a close up view was an awesome experience. They are a spectacular part of Eddy County. Their beauty should be preserved for future generations to enjoy and I would support that,” Davis said.
“While there are some who fear possible oil and exploration could spoil the beauty of the mountains and what they have to offer in terms of wildlife, recreation and caving, I believe it would be extremely difficult to get in there due to the ruggedness of the terrain and karst.”
Information from: Carlsbad Current-Argus, http://www.currentargus.com/