The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989

ECO-BEAT

Signpost cartoon, c. Rudi Klimpert

Tree recycling available at new county landfill

With its new composting facility now up and running, the Sandoval County landfill will for the first time take Christmas trees for recycling.

Trees will be accepted without charge at the landfill, located in Rio Rancho at the intersection of Idalia and Iris Roads, county public works director Phil Rios said. The resulting compost will be used for erosion-control projects and offered to county communities for local uses, he added.

The county decided to solicit the trees because the supply of green waste, while abundant during growing seasons, slacks off during the winter, Rios said.

Recycling began December 27 and will continue from Tuesday, January 2, through Friday, January 13. Landfill hours are 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Far right pushes to sell off forests, parks, wilderness areas

—MICHELLE BURKHART
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., continued his crusade against environmental regulations in November, tucking provisions into a budget bill that could lead to a massive public-lands sell-off. The proposal, masterminded by Pombo and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., would put as many as 350 million acres up for sale, including parcels within national parks and wilderness areas.

"This is the far right’s granddaddy of all land-grabs," says Roger Flynn, director of the Western Mining Action Project. The provision would lift an 11-year moratorium on mining patents, once again allowing mining companies to buy public lands. It would also eliminate a long-standing requirement that mining companies prove that there are valuable mineral deposits before they stake a claim. That means that, for the first time, oil and gas companies, real estate developers, casinos, ski resorts—anyone—could file a claim and buy public land. "The only limit is the size of a purchaser’s checkbook," says Flynn.

The mining law provision is just the latest in a growing list of anti-environment proposals to come out of Pombo’s office. In recent months, he has pushed to revise the National Environmental Policy Act, and convinced the House to approve substantial changes to the Endangered Species Act.

In September, Pombo proposed selling 15 national parks, along with the naming rights to visitor centers and trails, to help balance the federal budget; he quickly dropped the proposal when it came under fire, saying it was just a conversation starter to get support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Jim DiPeso, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, believes that Pombo’s strategy may correlate in a different way with the elections next year. He suspects that Pombo’s urgency stems from a sense that the political winds are changing.

"He may be making the calculation that the gig may be up for the hard-core right-wing Republicans," says DiPeso. "Anything like wholesale privatization or opening up the coastlines and the Arctic to drilling ... will slip away if the Republicans lose their majority in the house."

The author is a High Country News intern.

Sell-off of public lands halted

On December 13, the Pombo Provision in the Budget Reconciliation Bill which would have allowed the sale of much of our public lands, including the Valle Vidal, was removed from consideration.

The legislation was opposed by New Mexico Representatives Udall and Wilson, Senator Jeff Bingaman, and Governor Bill Richardson.

Wilson joined eight moderate Republicans who wrote, "If enacted, this bill could lead to rapid sale of public lands throughout the West."

"It's a fire sale for developers and anybody that wants to just take over our public lands," said the Governor, calling it "horrendous" legislation that needs to be killed.

"I'm pleased that so many of my colleagues have come to recognize the appalling results these mining provisions would produce. Clearly the 1872 Mining Law is archaic and must be reformed, but reform must be done in an open, transparent legislative process, not forced into a budget bill with little deliberation," Udall stated.

Applications being accepted for USDA conservation programs

The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service has announced that applications for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program are being accepted through January 27.

EQIP is a voluntary conservation program providing financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers who want to mitigate various natural-resource concerns (soil erosion, water conservation, etc.) on their land.

WHIP is also a voluntary program, open to all individuals, who want to implement conservation practices that will protect and enhance wildlife habitat.

The Albuquerque Field Office is planning public meetings in early January to describe and promote these programs. Call the NRCS Field Office, 761-4499, for details.

Special protection for Valle Vidal may help prevent drilling

—NEW MEXICO DEPARTMENT OF GAME AND FISH
Streams and lakes in northern New Mexico’s Valle Vidal are better protected from further degradation in water quality with the recent designation as Outstanding National Resource Waters by the state Water Quality Control Commission.

The Commission voted 11-1 to approve the Valle Vidal nomination by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Environment Department and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. The Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW) designation is a classification allowed under the federal Clean Water Act. It does not prohibit oil and gas drilling, but it does allow the state to impose stringent restrictions and requirements on land uses that affect surface water quality. The designation will not affect existing uses of the land, which include hunting, fishing, other recreational activities and some livestock grazing.

Proponents of the ONRW designation included Governor Bill Richardson, state agencies, the Coalition for the Valle Vidal and others opposed to drilling for natural gas in the Valle Vidal. El Paso Corp. has asked the U.S. Forest Service to allow drilling for coal-bed methane in portions of the 100,000-acre Valle Vidal area of the Carson National Forest east of Red River. Drilling opponents argue that activities associated with gas drilling will adversely affect area surface waters. Governor Richardson has said the ONRW designation is the first step in the state’s battle to protect the Valle Vidal from natural gas drilling.

Valle Vidal streams, including Rio Costilla, Comanche, Ponil and McCrystal creeks, are home to New Mexico’s state fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Surrounding high mountain meadows, open grasslands and mountains support the state’s largest elk herd and many other wildlife species.

For more information about the Valle Vidal and the ONRW nomination, please visit the Department of Game and Fish Web site, www.wildlife.state.nm.us.

Trouble on the Valles Caldera

—LAURA PASKUS
The Valles Caldera National Preserve is a sweeping landscape of grassy meadows and meandering streams that lies above its namesake—a collapsed volcanic crater—in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico. Though the volcano has been at rest for a million or so years, recent rumblings may portend a new type of upheaval, one that could jeopardize the West’s most recent experiment in public-lands management.

Five years ago, the federal government paid $101 million for the privately owned Baca Ranch, home to one of the West’s largest elk populations, as well as to archaeological treasures and camera-ready vistas. When Congress passed legislation declaring the ranch a preserve, it made two things clear: The goal was preservation, but the 89,000-acre property was to be managed differently from other federal lands. It would remain a working ranch, run by a board of trustees appointed by the president.

In its early days, the board of the Valles Caldera Trust, appointed by President Clinton, worked cooperatively with the grassroots groups who had lobbied Congress for the preserve’s creation. Those groups, which came together as the Valles Caldera Coalition, included local conservationists, hunters, recreationists and ranchers.

"Our approach was not to be confrontational, but to work collaboratively with the board of trustees," says Ernie Atencio, who coordinated the coalition from 2001 to 2003. "Though of course things weren’t perfect, by and large the coalition felt (the board members) were heading in the right direction."

In 2004, the board hired former New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell as the preserve’s new director. Powell wanted to welcome scientific researchers, educators and recreationists to the preserve, along with the local ranchers. Not only would they help the preserve’s managers better understand the ecosystem, he reasoned; they would also bring an infusion of money to the place.

But in August, after only 11 months at the job, Powell resigned, citing differences with the board, which was by then made up of Bush administration appointees and included four more people tied to the ranching industry than the original board. "I was looking at [the preserve] as a crown jewel that had a strong component of being a working ranch," he says. "But the board looked at it as a working ranch that had the component of being a crown jewel."

A SPLIT MANDATE
The conflict over the Valles Caldera stems from the compromise under which it was created. New Mexico’s senior senator, Pete Domenici, R, has long been hostile to the creation of any more public lands in his state, which is already 32 percent federal land. It was Domenici who insisted on running the preserve as a "wholly owned government corporation"—and that it become financially self-sufficient within 15 years.

From the beginning, this mandate has translated into pressure to lease the preserve for livestock grazing. In 2002, the board re-opened the preserve to grazing, despite a lack of environmental studies and public comment. This August, the board extended the grazing program, and although it is moving forward with a grazing study, it now says it lacks the resources for a comprehensive management plan, including promised research on wildlife, recreation, prescribed fire, roads and potential geothermal leases.

The current grazing program allows for up to 2,000 head of cattle on the preserve. That’s still far shy of the 5,000 head that roamed the ranch in the past. But it shows that the board is "putting the cow before the fish, elk, birds and streams," says Billy Stern, grazing program coordinator for Forest Guardians.
Not only that, says Stern, but because "running cattle costs more than it brings in," it’s likely to keep the preserve from ever becoming financially self-sustaining.

A just-released report from the Government Accountability Office says the preserve still needs to determine how it will become self-sustaining. Nevertheless, at its November meeting, the board unveiled plans for increasing livestock on the preserve, despite the fact that the new program would be unlikely to generate profit: "It’s a very expensive program," says trust chair Tracy Seidman Hephner. "We’re losing a significant amount of money with the cattle program.

THE PUBLIC FEELS LOCKED OUT
The board is searching for a new director, but its members have avoided discussing the friction that led to Powell’s resignation. When asked about it at a September meeting in Albuquerque, Seidman Hephner said only that the board "has a responsibility to set policy." Trustee Jim Gosz added that a director who wants to create policy "was not what we wanted."

Powell, for his part, says he has nothing against grazing, but that the land has been left battered from previous grazing and logging operations. "People think this is a pristine place," he says. "In reality, it’s been working land for a hundred years, and it needs a lot of help to restore it back to health."

But what most disturbs members of the Valles Caldera Coalition is the feeling that the public, once enthusiastically included in the management process, is now being locked out. The preserve has been without a communications director for almost nine months. Board meetings are now announced only five days in advance—and only to those who have requested notification. Seidman Hephner announced at the September meeting that the board will no longer hire a court reporter to record public meetings; any comments for the record must now be submitted in writing.

And five years after the preserve’s creation, the public has unrestricted access to just two short hiking and ski trails. Hunting is tightly restricted, and even fishing access is determined by a lottery held three times a year.

Coalition chair Dave Henderson, who is also a state game commissioner and executive director of Audubon New Mexico, says that what began as a collaborative experiment is becoming confrontational. The coalition is even considering legal action against the trust, for failing to allow public input on its grazing plan.

"The board of trustees need to learn they work for the public, not vice versa," he says. "They need to learn to involve the public and not be threatened by them."

High Country News (www.hcn.org) covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colorado. The author, Southwest editor for High Country News, lives in Albuquerque.

top of page

TOP OF PAGE

 

Front Page   Up Front  Animal News   Around Town   Classifieds   Calendar  Community Profile  Community Center  Crime Scene   Eco-Beat   Featured Artist  Fire and Rescue  The Gauntlet   Community Links  Night Skies   Movie Reviews  My Wife and Times  Sandoval Arts   Schoolbag   Time Off   Back Issues   Ad Rates   Contact Us