Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988

Congress may ban gravel mining on Placitas BLM land

—Bill Diven

The push to keep gravel mining out of federal lands in Placitas has moved to Congress.

In mid-June, Sen. Martin Heinrich and co-sponsor Sen. Tom Udall introduced the Buffalo Tract Protection Act, which would prohibit mineral development on about 4,300 acres controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The bill is named for the largest of four parcels, 3,139 acres in northwestern Placitas whose outline resembles a buffalo in profile. [See map at the bottom of this page.]

If the bill becomes law, it eliminates one controversy in updating a resource management plan (RMP) covering the BLM’s sprawling Rio Puerco Field Office. The draft RMP indicated eight hundred acres of the Buffalo Tract could be opened to quarrying for gravel.

The ban on mining would also cover the Crest of Montezuma, the 715-acre mountainous ridge defining the horizon of eastern Placitas, and two smaller parcels, 37 acres bordering San Felipe Pueblo and 195 acres northwest of Placitas village between the Overlook and Cedar Creek areas.

“This is the first hurdle and the most important one,” said Ed Majka, president of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association. “If we can stop the gravel mining, that’s certainly a big win for the community… It was a concerted effort by a number of people to get Sen. Heinrich to introduce the bill.”

That effort included public meetings, working with congressional staff in Albuquerque and Washington and letters of support from local and tribal governments and homeowners’ groups.

Gravel mining is not a new issue here, as already five mines line about six miles of the Interstate 25 frontage road from southern Bernalillo to Algodones. All are generally upwind of Placitas and close to residential areas.

The largest, purchased by Vulcan Materials Inc. in 2014, is at the center of a zoning lawsuit filed earlier that year, alleging failure to comply with a 1988 agreement restricting operations and limiting its production life. The Land Protection Trust, an ES-CA affiliate, has intervened in the lawsuit and is party to settlement negotiations now underway. Details of the negotiations remain confidential, Majka said.

When he was a member of the House, Heinrich pressed for annexing the Crest of Montezuma to the Cibola National Forest. Both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service agreed to the deal, but the legislation introduced in 2011 stalled.

“The Crest of Montezuma and the Buffalo Tract have incredible ecosystems and many uses both sacred and utilitarian,” Heinrich said in a statement after introducing the Buffalo Tract bill. “Numerous residents have shared their concerns with me about the future of these lands… Most concerning to them are the ways in which a gravel mine would impact their health, quality of life, water supply, and continued access.”

While the bill would protect the underground resources, it does not affect any decisions the BLM might make on surface uses. By law, the BLM manages its public lands for multiple uses from development and grazing to recreation, transfer to other agencies, sale, or leaving as is. Along the way, the BLM works to stay out of the politics.

“I’m going to do what Congress tells me to do. That’s the law,” BLM Albuquerque District Director Danita Burns told the Signpost. “I’ll keep going in the same manner.”

The BLM is waiting for the RMP to be final before it accepts any applications for new uses of the land. San Felipe and Santa Ana pueblos border the Buffalo Tract, and both say they have historic claims to it.

Wild-horse advocates see it as a potential sanctuary for the horses still roaming Placitas, and the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant is promoting the idea of an interpretive historical village on part of the tract. Wildlife groups want the land left open as part of the wildlife corridor connecting the Jemez and Sandia mountains.

The Placitas Open Space was once part of the Buffalo Tract but is now managed by the city of Albuquerque under the federal Recreation and Public Purposes Act.

The update of the 1986 RMP began in 2012. While Placitas has been vocal in the RMP process, the plan covers 775,000 surface acres and about 3.6 million acres of subsurface mineral rights, spread from the Arizona state line to central New Mexico.

The draft plan drew fifty thousand public comments, and release of the final plan has been expected any month for the last year.

Burns said staffing changes locally, and in Washington, plus a few technical issues have delayed the RMP. It could be out as early as this month, although the BLM website simply says sometime this year


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