The following press release was sent out by SWEC and our coalition partners on April 15th.

Conservationists believe proposed land management plan would leave southern New Mexico wildlife and wilderness at risk

Open comment period allows opportunity for public to urge the BLM to adopt better management practices

Albuquerque, NM (April 15, 2013)-- A recently released Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Draft Resource Management Plan (RMP), will govern the BLM’s management of 2.82 million acres of land in Dona Ana, Otero and Sierra counties for the next twenty years, yet lacks sufficient protection for the region’s most treasured landscapes, wildlife and wilderness quality lands. The public now has the opportunity to weigh in on this plan.

The Tri-County area includes some of southern New Mexico’s most incredible places, including the Organ Mountains just outside of Las Cruces, Sierra County’s gypsum hills and Otero Mesa, the largest remaining un-fragmented Chihuahuan Desert grassland in the United States. Outside of existing WSA management, the agency’s proposal contains no protection for areas like the Brokeoff Mountains, the Sierra de las Uvas, the Caballo area, Eastern Otero Mesa or the east side of the Potrillos.

"There are some good things in its preferred alternative," said Kevin Bixby, Executive Director of the Southwest Environmental Center, "but the BLM missed an opportunity to address one of the greatest challenges of our time and what should be its number one priority- protecting populations of southern New Mexico's unique plants and animals over large landscapes in the face of climate change and growing human numbers. The agency took baby steps when bold actions are required to protect world-class landscapes like Otero Mesa, wildlife corridors connecting our sky island mountain ranges, and riparian habitat along the Rio Grande. Hopefully, we can work with the agency to make sure these actions are contained in the final plan."

BLM's plan would leave the vast grasslands of Otero Mesa at risk from oil and gas development and mining.

The proposed plan does not adversely impact existing designated Wilderness or Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), but it fails to recognize thousands of additional acres that deserve protection. Recent citizen-inventories found over half a million acres of wilderness-quality land in the Tri-County area, but the BLM is proposing to manage only 803 acres for wilderness values outside of the existing designated areas. This is less than 3/100th’s of 1% of the land in the BLM’s jurisdiction.

“The BLM has broad discretion when it comes to management planning,” said Judy Calman, staff attorney at the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “Designating such a small amount of acreage as having wilderness characteristics when even a brief glance at the landscape shows otherwise, is simply not in conformance with good practices for a federal agency, and is too unbalanced for successful long-term management.”

"I live up the road from the Nutt Grasslands, which are second only in size to Otero Mesa as far as intact Chihuahua Grasslands left in New Mexico," states John Cornell, Sportsman Coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. "These grasslands are home to deer, elk, antelope, javelina and three of the four species of quail we that have in New Mexico. There are also several species of raptors, including nesting golden eagles. Sportsmen were hoping for more protection from the RMP for habitat, clean water and wildlife. This plan does not go far enough to take into consideration possible impacts from future commercial development."

While conservation groups are encouraged by the proposed designation of several new Areas of Environmental Concern, including a large “Otero Mesa Grasslands ACEC,” there is concern that the management prescriptions proposed by the agency are inadequate to truly conserve the ecological and archeological treasures on its lands. Most of Otero Mesa, for example, would still be open to mining and oil and gas leasing, putting valued wildlife habitat and Native American cultural sites at risk.

The BLM will take input from the public about their proposed Resource Management Plan on April 23, April 30 and May 8, during public meetings in Las Cruces, Alamogordo and Truth or Consequences. Conservationists believe that through this process this BLM will recognize the high value local communities place in treasured landscapes.

The campaign to preserve Otero Mesa and its wilderness, water, and wildlife has the support of numerous organizations, businesses, religious leaders, sportsmen, ranchers, scientists, and elected officials as well as city, county and state governments. For the past ten years, we have stood together in calling for the permanent protection of this rare and beautiful grassland, as well as for measures to preserve its freshwater resources.