Coalition For Otero Mesa

Posted: Jul 1, 2005
Written by: 
April Reese

The Otero Mesa Coalition Soldiers On

United by a shared desire to keep New Mexico's Otero Mesa from becoming a natural gas field, an unlikely coalition of environmentalists and sportsmen has come together to fight the contentious energy proposal. But while the group has succeeded in attracting national attention to the issue, it leaves out some important players. The difficulties the coalition has encountered offers a lesson for collaborative groups that are wondering how inclusive a coalition needs to be.

The coalition formed to oppose plans by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow oil and gas drilling on most of Otero Mesa's 1.2 million acres - an area that encompasses a prime expanse of Chihuahuan grassland. Energy companies suspect the area may contain one of the largest untapped gas stores in the West. But critics, including the coalition, say large-scale development would irrevocably alter the area's unique Chihuahuan grasslands, degrade habitat for the aplomado falcon and other wildlife, and turn Otero's vast open spaces into an industrial eyesore.

In March 2004, when local groups met to discuss the fate of Otero Mesa, the members were optimistic about their chances for reaching an agreement. Six months later, however, in September 2004, the participants were at odds with one another and had divided into several groups. The Coalition for Otero Mesa, which may not meet the definition of a collaborative group, is currently leading the opposition. The experience of the participants in the discussion surrounding Otero Mesa demonstrates the limits of building an inclusive coalition around the Otero Mesa issue.

The coalition, whose membership includes the Sierra Club, Doña Ana Consolidated Sportsmen, the National Wildlife Federation, Forest Guardians, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, and Republicans for Environmental Protection, has helped catapult the controversy over drilling on Otero Mesa into the national spotlight, with press coverage in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, among others.

But while the coalition has attracted hunters and some environmentalists, it has had difficulty attracting ranchers and some conservation groups who oppose the drilling plan, leading observers to stop short of calling it a collaborative group.

Terry Sullivan of The Nature Conservancy's (TNC's) Las Cruces, N.M., office said that environmental interests tend to dominate the coalition's decision-making. "I don't really think the other members are involved in substantially affecting their strategies -- I don't think they're really equal partners. But that tends to be the case with coalitions."

The local culture and steadfast positions of the various interests involved in the issue would make it difficult to form a truly collaborative group, said Sullivan, whose group also opposes energy development on Otero Mesa but has not joined the coalition. (TNC is on the coalition's list of members, but Sullivan said it is not officially involved with the group.)

"Any time you expand a coalition, it requires compromise, and meeting more organizations halfway," Sullivan said. "I think it would be difficult for this coalition to do this, because they've drawn a line in the sand. So to me, it's hard to say some kind of middle ground can be reached."

Otero Mesa rancher and activist Bob Jones said ranchers are wary of working with environmentalists, whom they perceive as anti-ranching. And most ranchers oppose the designation of a wilderness area on Otero Mesa - something some environmentalists have advocated in the past.

"I think generally, most people in the environmental community are where we're at, but we're afraid to get too involved with them," said Bob Jones, who is leading the opposition effort among Otero Mesa ranchers. "I think if you could have a no-wilderness agreement between [the members of the coalition] where they agreed to not ever violate it, it could work. But I think the first problem you have is trust."

New Mexico Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Steve Capra, who leads the coalition, acknowledged that there is a "wide gulf" between his position and that of ranchers like Jones, who traditionally have supported private enterprise on public lands. That said, the coalition and Otero Mesa ranchers have had some "constructive" meetings, he added. The coalition has backed off the wilderness proposal and now supports a less-restrictive national conservation area designation, he said.

 Oil storage tanks on BLM-leased land
Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management
Even those who support the coalition are sometimes at odds, Capra said.

"This has always been a difficult alliance at best," he said. "We come from different perspectives on things."

The coalition has had little success in convincing the BLM to reconsider the proposal.

"We've compromised every step of the way. We've made good-faith efforts to work with the agency and industry. Our concerns have not been heard or addressed," Capra said. Linda Rundell, New Mexico State Director of the BLM insists the plan is the result of a broad range of public input. "We worked with the counties, ranchers, conservationists, the oil and gas industry, and other interested parties to develop a plan that will allow for environmentally responsible energy development," she said.

In this case, developing a broad coalition may not make much of a difference in the level of effectiveness of the group, Sullivan said.

"From a philosophical standpoint, I think it's always desirable to develop a broad coalition. From a real-world standpoint, I don't thing there would be much added value to having a broad coalition here, because this is going to be decided by political forces," he said. "This is something the Department of Interior has decided they pretty much want to make happen. So I don't see how they'd take a step back from that, just because of a broader coalition being opposed to it. "

Collapsed Compromise

The entrenched positions of environmentalists, ranchers, oil and gas companies, and others became apparent a few years ago, when the BLM hired a mediator in an attempt to work out a compromise. Participants soon found that a collaborative solution could not be reached because no one was willing to budge.

"There wasn't a willingness to collaborate," said Toby Herzlich, the mediator who worked with the group. "It became very apparent that the environmentalists felt one way and the oil and gas interests felt another way. The two sides were so far apart that they thought they couldn't work together. And the environmentalists thought they had a good chance of getting what they wanted on their own."

In Capra's view, the BLM-initiated process fell apart because the BLM never intended to compromise.

"It was a sham," he said. "There is no such thing as mediation when you're basically being told oil and gas development is going to occur, and it's going to occur in a huge way. A real dialogue to us was we'd have some areas with no development, and that wasn't even being considered. It was greenwashing on the part of BLM."

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance decided there was nothing to be gained from the process and launched its own opposition effort.

"I think we realized we had a much better chance of convincing the general public we had something worth protecting, rather than going through this process," he said. "I remember thinking at the time, 'Now you've really done it -- we're going to lose everything.' But now, I think we've been able to make some headway."

While the coalition may not be all-inclusive, its united front has been "very important" to the group's ability to raise the profile of the issue and win broader public support, Capra said.

"There is strength in numbers. It's opened up doors we never had before," he said.

But in the end, the coalition's efforts failed to keep wells on Otero Mesa to a minimum. In January 2005, BLM officials signed off on the proposed leasing plan, officially allowing the drilling of 141 wells that would disturb roughly 1,600 acres, according to the agency.

In finalizing the plan, the BLM rejected an alternative proposal by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, which called for placing over 1.5 million acres of federal land off-limits to drilling or under restrictions that would effectively bar oil and gas exploration. In April 2005, Richardson filed suit against the agency in federal court, arguing that BLM officials are legally obligated to incorporate the state's suggestions under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The suit marks the first time a state has invoked the law to challenge a federal land management plan, according to New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid.

In June 2005, the BLM offered its first parcel under the new leasing plan, but under a deal with Richardson and the coalition, it agreed to delay leasing the parcel for six months. Meanwhile, the coalition plans to work with the state to continue its fight in court, Capra said. The coalition is also taking its campaign on the road: It recently toured the East Coast to increase awareness about Otero Mesa, and plans to tour the Midwest as well.

The BLM's attempts at collaboration, as well as the parallel efforts of ranchers and the coalition since then, provide an important lesson for groups considering whether to collaborate, Herzlich said.

"Sometimes it's appropriate to work collaboratively if everyone wants to work toward a solution, and other times, you may find a better solution elsewhere," she said.

For more information see:

The Wilderness Society "Otero Mesa: Wilderness or Oil Field?"

New Mexico Wilderness Alliance

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