Taos based environmental groups join the student activists from Yaxche School to protect the Valle Vidal from destruction by Coal Bed Methane drilling.

© Chris Dahl-Bredine



simpleChangeAwards 2007


for Stewardship






Rachel Conn, Amigos Bravos

Jim O'Donnell, Northern Director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, Western Environmental Law Center

The Students of the Valle Vidal Study Group, The Yaxche School

The Valle Vidal Protection Act was signed on December 12, 2006.

These individuals and groups played critical roles in its passage.


The following is an overview of the quest to save the Valle Vidal


Who Owns the Public’s Lands?



A Campaign Overview Prepared for ORION Magazine

"I refuse to believe that we are as desperate as a nation
that we are willing to drill every last nook and cranny of our last remaining wild lands
for the last drop of oil or cubic foot of gas.

I refuse to believe that we are defining the value of our lands
by only what can be extracted from them.

To me this is like valuing the worth of a human being only by
what products of value can be rendered from
flesh and bone.”

Alan Lackey
rancher and hunting guide
former president of the Raton, New Mexico Chamber of Commerce
co-founder of The Coalition for the Valle Vidal



is a lush complex of forests, meadows, lakes, and streams that straddles the crest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just north of the town of Eagle Nest, New Mexico. Donated to the people of the United States, ironically, from Pennzoil Corporation, this 100,000-acre paradise has been managed by the U.S. Forest Service for its wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values since 1982.

Beneath the Valle Vidal’s surface, however, rests a form of natural gas, coalbed methane (CBM), sought by the Houston-based El Paso Corporation. El Paso, already operating more than 600 wells on Ted Turner’s adjacent Vermejo Park Ranch, submitted an “expression of interest” to the federal government in 2003 to lease the Valle Vidal and thereby extend its drilling operations into the Valle Vidal. In this endeavor, El Paso was assisted by the White House Energy Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining, which placed subtle but unmistakable pressure on the Forest Service that was consistent with the administration’s overriding “drill, drill, drill” approach to energy issues.

To protect the Valle Vidal, communities quickly rallied around a set of “core values”:

1. The Valle Vidal’s watersheds are of paramount value, and its waters the lifeblood of the land’s wildlife and our communities.

2. The Valle Vidal is a vital resource to a sustainable future for northern New Mexico’s rural and agricultural communities.

3. The Valle Vidal provides unique recreational and sporting opportunities for families, hunters, anglers, boy scouts, and other outdoor enthusiasts.

4. The Valle Vidal provides a home for abundant wildlife populations, and holds intrinsic ecological importance and scenic beauty.

5. The Valle Vidal should be managed for the benefit of the people—all of the people.

These core values were intentionally designed to build the Coalition for the Valle Vidal, an alliance of New Mexico’s traditionally divided “sub” communities—conservationists, hunters and anglers, local governments, chambers of commerce, ranchers, etc.—and to thereby present a unified front in support of permanently protecting the Valle Vidal and in opposition to the pro-drilling rhetoric that pervades in Washington, D.C., rhetoric that served as the basis for an ongoing assault on public lands and environmental laws. Over 400 local businesses, governments, and organizations now form the Coalition.

These core values, however, also unintentionally set in motion an experiment in community convergence, a convergence between the common values of conservatives and liberals; Anglos, Hispanos, and Native Americans; and environmentalists, hunters, anglers, and ranchers. As a result, we believe we are witnessing the formation of embryonic elements of a fair, equitable, long-term, and ultimately sustainable vision for New Mexico.

Both the intentional effort—to build alliances—and the unintentional result—a convergence of common values—reflect a systematic failure by Washington, D.C., to address mounting energy-related issues with anything by a supply-side “drill” mentality.

“The Valle Vidal is one of the greatest places in America,
and if they can’t keep it exactly how it is now,
I’m against it.”

Jim Rice
bartender of the St. James Saloon, Cimarron, New Mexico

“I am a supporter of the oil and gas industry.
I am pro-development.
I’ve made my living from developing the resources of this state.
But as we look for balance, there are some places unique enough and special enough to be set aside.
That is the Valle Vidal.”

Gary Fonay
past president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association




Who Owns the Public’s Lands?

The Valle Vidal would provide this nation with, at best, 2 ½ days of natural gas at current consumption rates and, potentially, only ½ day. Step back from the Valle Vidal to look at the Rocky Mountain West more broadly, and, according to the 2003 federal “EPCA” Report, 88 percent of natural gas resources underlying federal public lands in New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming are already available for oil and gas leasing. Indeed, as of 2004, oil and gas corporations have, nationally, obtained contractually enforceable leases to over 35 million acres of federal public lands. Yet despite their alleged lack of “access” to domestic oil and gas resources, only 11.7 million of these leased acres were in production. Industry might also complain of “permit backlogs,” but the facts belie this assertion: In fiscal year 2004, the Bureau of Land Management issued 6,052 individual drilling permits, yet industry only drilled 2,702 wells. Even more dramatically, industry’s ability to produce sufficient natural gas for our nation is little more than a myth. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group demonstrated that, on average between 1989 and 2003, the total domestic natural gas production satiated only 14.8 days of our nation’s yearly natural gas demand.

These figures should provoke outrage. Are we so desperate for fossil fuels that we are willing to sacrifice our remaining wildlands for a mere 2 ½ days of natural gas? Yet this conflict between energy development and wildlands protection is a false conflict. Despite the divisive rhetoric from pro-drilling forces, the debate over the Valle Vidal and other threatened wildlands is about choice—a choice between:

1. a continued, self-defeating reliance on fossil fuels and the consequent bitter, needless sacrifice of our remaining wildlands, and
2. the embrace of our nation’s can-do, get-it-done drive to develop clean energy as the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable way to increase energy supplies, hold down prices, and ensure the protection of our natural and cultural heritage. The Valle Vidal hangs in the balance.

“Our communities depend on our natural resources for survival.
We have to preserve them.
A lot of times, local communities are behind the curve on these things
and our land ends up being taken from us before we even know what’s happening.
Now, we are seeing local people and local governments get out in the lead
on protecting our special places.”

Mayor Danny Cruz
Springer, New Mexico


Who Owns the Public’s Lands?

Since the Bush Administration came to power in 2001, federal laws protecting the environment and the public’s right to transparent and accountable decision making have been weakened in an all-out legislative, administrative, and judicial assault. In significant part, this effort has exploited the complex interplay between foreign policy, energy policy, environmental policy, climate-change policy, and economic policy, proffering, on the one hand, a “trust us” approach to decision making and weakening, on the other hand, the ability of the public to hold these very same decision makers accountable.

The continual attacks on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act have been fairly well publicized. But there is more going on here. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, for example, exempts the oil and gas industry from bedrock water-quality protections provided by the Safe Drinking Water Act as well as the Clean Water Act. In the past few months, the Forest Service has also proposed to exclude a variety of intrusive oil and gas projects from NEPA review. This exclusion comes hot on the heels of comprehensive regulatory revisions to the Forest Planning process that severely limits the public’s right to participation, loosens wildlife protections, and actually sets the stage for later exclusion of all Forest Plans from NEPA.

These are not isolated events. Standing alone, the traditional conservation community cannot hold the line. Local elected officials, business leaders, and activists throughout the West have, however, become increasingly strong allies. In the process, they have opened the door to new strategies and tactics and enhanced the efficacy of traditional, time-tested strategies and tactics.

The Coalition has aggressively engaged the Forest Service planning process, submitting a “Restoration and Protection” alternative grounded in our Core Values; made aggressive use of open government laws; and identified and obtained heavyweight national- and state-level political champions—Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Jeff Bingaman, Representative Tom Udall, Attorney General Patricia Madrid, and, nominally, Representative Heather Wilson—to amplify the voice of local communities. Thus far, nearly 70,000 Americans have submitted comments to the Forest Service demanding permanent protection for the Valle Vidal. Yet, the drilling option somehow remains on the table.

Our efforts have paid dividends and to some extent countered the assault: legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to permanently protect the Valle Vidal (S. 1734; H.R. 3817), thanks to Senator Bingaman and Representative Udall; and the waters of the Valle Vidal were recently designated an Outstanding National Resource Water, the highest level of protection under the federal Clean Water Act, thanks in large part to Governor Richardson. The relevance of these efforts to national politics should not be discounted. Governor Richardson is frequently mentioned as a potential 2008 presidential candidate, and the congressional race between Representative Wilson (R) and Attorney General Madrid (D) in NM-01 is one of the most hotly contested races of 2006.


“The Valle Vidal brings millions every year into our economies.
That money is coming from wildlife watching, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and camping.
All of these people spend money on their way to and from the Valle Vidal.
We can’t afford to lose that.”

Tracy Boyce
former president of Cimarron Chamber of Commerce
local business owner, Cimarron Village councilor

Who Owns the Public’s Lands?

By far the majority of Americans yearn for clean water, clean air, protected landscapes, and the conservation of wildlife. But if we as a nation don’t tie the protection of water, land, and air to economics and jobs, then we will surely fail to match our desires. Local communities and local economies are the bulwark against the excesses of exploitive capitalism and consequent environmental degradation.

The West has a new economic reality: a long-term shift away from extractive industries and toward recreation and tourism. The all-out drive to drill every bit of public land without factoring in long-term effects on the value of that land to local communities isn’t just environmentally unfriendly, it’s economically insane. To exchange the natural wealth inherent in our landscapes to a one-time hit of corporate profit is a boondoggle of the first order. It’s a national shame that should outrage anyone and everyone across the political spectrum.

We hired Dr. Thomas Michael Power, an economics professor at the University of Montana, to analyze the likely economic impact—for better or for worse—of the Valle Vidal to surrounding communities. Dr. Power determined that recreation and cattle grazing in the Valle Vidal input $2–$5 million a year into area economies. Given existing data, there was no way to measure exactly how many jobs that input specifically supports but it is presumably substantial. By comparison, if the Valle Vidal were drilled for coalbed methane, as is proposed, less than 90 jobs would be created and the economic input to local communities is projected to be about $3–$4 million and produce fewer than 90 jobs.


The West has changed.

Big industry and the Bush Administration would have us believe that, economically, we must continue living in the past, and they seem intent on keeping us there.

But this is simply not the case.

“I come from a longstanding, time-honored family
whose love for the land runs deep in our roots and flows through our veins.
Our protected public lands are our lifeline to a sustainable future.
More and more we are seeing that communities that protect their public lands
are benefiting economically.”

Don Francisco Trujillo II
Taos County commissioner
chairman of the Intergovernmental Council of the Enchanted Circle in Northern New Mexico

Who Owns the Public’s Lands?

It should be no surprise that the Valle Vidal holds a long, rich, and colorful history, embodying many of the most important historical elements of the Rocky Mountain West. Native peoples—including the original Folsom people, Anasazi, Pueblo cultures, and Jicarilla Apache—trace their ancestry and history to the Valle Vidal. The Valle Vidal, as part of the former Maxwell Land Grant, also reflects New Mexico’s Spanish and Mexican land-grant heritage, the loss of communal land and water, and the West’s predilection for violent and bloody conflicts—for example, the Colfax County Wars.

The Valle Vidal’s history continues to unfold as a focal point and symbol in the battle for the soul of western public lands. Always an integral component of New Mexico’s intertwined natural and cultural heritage, the Valle Vidal holds increasing relevance to some of the most important debates of our time, debates that must reflect the voice of the land and communities.

The next several months are critical. The November congressional elections constitute a key opportunity to leverage pressure on the NM-01 seat—regardless of who wins—to support federal legislation. Presently, Representative Wilson has not endorsed the legislation. Instead, she is awaiting the Draft Forest Plan, which is supposed to be released sometime this summer, with a 90-day public comment period to follow. Attorney General Madrid is, at this time, in support of the legislation, although she has not yet made a formal announcement. If the Coalition can properly orchestrate media, advocacy, and legal elements during this time period, in significant part by laying the proper foundation between now and July, we feel we have a solid chance of moving toward permanent protection.

“The definable characteristic of being a New Mexican is shown most clearly in the places we cherish – the places that we recognize as so special that we want to set them aside for our children and our grandchildren. Even if there were significant gas resources under the Valle Vidal, it would be very difficult to risk turning it into an industrial zone. But we don’t really face that choice here. The eastern half of the Valle Vidal comprises less than 1 percent of the gas-producing Raton Basin. According to the Forest Service, even with the most optimistic projections, the gas resources are less than one half of one percent of the Raton Basin resources.”

Jeff Bingaman, United States Senator, New Mexico

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