Coalition for the Valle Vidal

Posted: Nov 20, 2007
Written by: 
April Reese

Carson National Forest, northern New Mexico

Objective: To gain permanent protection for the Valle Vidal from natural gas drilling or any other kind of industrialization and to preserve the land, the water resources, and the different cultural and societal resources of the area.

Participants: The Coalition for the Valle Vidal is made up of sportsmen, ranchers, outfitters and guides, members of the business community, clergymen, local governments, concerned citizens, outdoor enthusiasts, and conservationists — all united by a common desire to permanently protect the Valle Vidal.

History: The Coalition for the Valle Vidal just may be the biggest, broadest, most effective collaborative effort in the West. After more than three years of statewide coalition-building, congressional lobbying and consistent press coverage, the coalition achieved its ambitious goal in November 2006, when Congress passed the Valle Vidal Protection Act.

Boasting 400 members from all walks of life and thousands of supporters throughout New Mexico and beyond, the coalition was able to attract national media attention and congressional support in its quest to permanently protect the Valle Vidal, a vast, verdant bowl of alpine meadows and conifer forest nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountains (the southernmost finger of the Rockies) in northern New Mexico.

The 100,000-acre Valle Vidal is well-known among sportsmen and hikers alike for its robust populations of elk, mule deer, mountain lions, bald eagles, native Rio Grande cutthroat trout, and other wildlife, which benefit from clear-running streams and rich alpine habitat. Visitors marvel at the ancient volcanic crater's scenic vistas and wide-open spaces.

Some of those visitors are Boy Scouts from the adjacent Philmont Scout Ranch, which sponsors a High Adventure program that takes the boys on trips into the Valle Vidal. The area is also known for its near-pristine water resources: the headwaters of McCrystal Creek and North Ponil Creek, both of which have been recommended as federally designated "wild and scenic" rivers, are found there.

 The El Paso Corporation proposed drilling east of Little Costilla Peak, pictured above.
Photo by Ray Watt
But the area, which was donated to the Forest Service by Pennzoil Company in 1982, is also well known within the energy industry for its stores of natural gas. According to recent industry estimates, the Valle Vidal holds enough coalbed methane — a type of natural gas trapped in coal seams — to supply the nation's needs for 30 hours. In 2003, El Paso Corporation signaled interest in exploring the 40,000-acre eastern section of the Valle Vidal for coalbed methane. The proposal involved drilling up to 254 wells over 20 years and restricting surface disturbance to protect the area's natural and scenic values, according to a preliminary Forest Service analysis of the Valle Vidal's potential for coalbed methane development.

The coalition formed shortly thereafter to fight the proposal and permanently protect the Valle Vidal from any form of industrial development. Several members of the coalition say that while they understand the need to increase domestic energy supplies, the Valle Vidal does not hold enough coalbed methane to significantly contribute to energy security over the long term, and its special significance for recreation, water quality, and scenic values should take precedence over its value as a natural gas field.

El Paso's interest spurred the Forest Service to begin a long and complex planning process aimed at determining whether to allow energy development in the area. The agency had taken preliminary steps to amend its forest plan to clarify the management direction for the Valle Vidal. If the Forest Service decided that energy development was one of the "multiple uses" suitable for the Valle Vidal, the agency then planned to undertake a leasing analysis to determine whether the area should be leased, and what effects leasing would have on the environment.

Coalition members and supporters, including New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall (D), believed legislation was preferable to the Forest Service review process, because an act of Congress was the only way to provide permanent protection for the area. Even if the agency rejected El Paso's request, it could eventually allow development, coalition members noted.

Introduced in the House of Representatives in September 2005 by Rep. Udall, the two-paragraph Valle Vidal Protection Act withdraws the entire 101,794-acre area from energy development and mining.

The bill unanimously passed the House in July 2006, but stalled in the Senate, where it waited to be considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R). Although the rest of New Mexico's congressional delegation — Reps. Udall, Steven Pearce (R) and Heather Wilson (R) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) — endorsed the bill, Domenici withheld his support for the bill for months, arguing that the matter should be resolved through the public Forest Service review process. But on November 16 — the week after the mid-term elections that put the Democrats in power in the House and the Senate — Domenici publicly announced he had decided to support the legislation and would do everything he could to get it through the Senate. Hours later, the full Senate passed the bill unanimously.

Coalition coordinator Jim O'Donnell says that now that the group has achieved its mission, it plans to dissolve, most likely by mid-summer 2007. A scaled-down group will stay together for a few months to ensure protection measures are implemented, he says.

 This pond-and-meadow is located on the east side of the Valle Vidal, within an area targeted for drilling for coalbed methane natural gas. This image is available as a 36" x 13" poster by contacting the Coalition for the Valle Vidal.
Photo by Dai Baker
Accomplishments: The coalition's greatest accomplishment, of course, is winning permanent, legislative protection for the Valle Vidal — an achievement coalition leaders attribute to a love of the place shared by citizens from all walks of life; the economic value of the area for hunting, horseback riding, hiking and other forms of tourism; a broad public information campaign; and the bipartisan push for passage of the bill from the New Mexico congressional delegation.

But the coalition accomplished several other milestones along the way. Due in large part to the coalition's well-organized campaign, the Forest Service received more than 50,000 public comments on its proposed forest plan amendment on the Valle Vidal in 2005. Most of the comments urged the agency to prohibit drilling.

In January 2006, the coalition succeeded in convincing the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission to designate the streams within the Valle Vidal as "Outstanding National Resource Waters" under the federal Clean Water Act. That gave the entire area some protection, because if a company drilled in the Valle Vidal, it would have to be careful not to degrade the water quality of the streams.

The group also helped convince New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to include a recommendation to designate the Valle Vidal as a roadless area when he filed a petition in May 2006 with the Secretary of Agriculture seeking protection for the state's inventoried roadless areas.

Challenges/constraints: O'Donnell says keeping the coalition's coffers full was an ongoing problem, even as it attracted national attention and grew in influence. And despite the House's fairly quick passage of the Valle Vidal Protection Act, it took four months for the bill to be addressed in the Senate. But with Domenici on board — a change of heart that members attribute in part to an unrelenting deluge of phone calls and e-mails to the senator's office and support from Republican supporters, including the National Rifle Association — the bill quickly passed when it was put before a floor vote in November.

Coalition members credit the group's clarity of mission, organization and sheer determination in making so much progress in such a short time. Despite the differences in political affiliations and lifestyles, members remained focused on their common love of the land and the central goal of gaining protection for one of New Mexico's most spectacular places.

"We had this plan and outline and we pretty much worked through it to get this passed in Washington," said Alan Lackey, a Republican rancher who has worked to drum up support for the Valle Vidal Protection Act on Capitol Hill.

For more information see:

Coalition for the Valle Vidal's web page

Carson National Forest Valle Vidal Land Management Plan

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