Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 12, 2004
CONTACT: Brian Segee, Center for Biological Diversity (520) 623-5252 x308
Carolyn Johnson, Citizens Coal Council (303) 722-9119
Mary Wiper, Sierra Club (505) 243-7767



SANTA FE, NM- The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Citizens Coal Council (CCC), and the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter have filed an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals objecting to the planned leasing of 120,000 acres of publicly owned oil and gas leases in Catron and Cibola counties, near the Zuni Salt Lake. The BLM’s sale was offered in October 2003, weeks after the Salt River Project (SRP) withdrew plans to develop the 18,000-acre Fence Lake coal strip mine.

”SRP’s decision to pull the plug on the Fence Lake coal mine presented the BLM with a great opportunity to step back and carefully plan future management of this currently undeveloped area, which is rich with cultural resources and unspoiled land,” stated Brian Segee, Southwest public lands director with CBD. “Instead of handing another huge area of New Mexico over to the oil and gas industry, BLM should finish ongoing planning efforts which ensure full protection of the Zuni Salt Lake and surrounding environment.”

Unlike many other areas of New Mexico, such as the San Juan Basin, very little oil and gas production has occurred in the west-central portion of the state surrounding Zuni Salt Lake, largely because past exploration attempts have found few resources that could be profitably recovered. However, the recent explosion of coalbed methane (CBM) production has energy corporations reconsidering such long overlooked areas. CBM production involves extensive groundwater pumping, which creates pressure allowing the methane to rise to the surface.

"Agency officials told us not to worry when we questioned them about rushing to lease this area. They said they would take care of preventing damage to the cultural and environmental resources later," said Carolyn Johnson, staff director of the Citizens Coal Council. "But BLM has earned a big, fat F and we can see what ‘later’ means today in northern New Mexico, western Colorado and central Wyoming. The agency allows the oil and gas drillers to go hog-wild,tearing up the land, polluting the water, and harassing ranchers and wildlife. BLM has not said no and been a responsible steward of our public lands."

Recognizing the unique environmental challenges posed by CBM development and the potential effects of an enormous new oil and gas field in a currently undeveloped area, the Socorro Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management recommended that the lease parcels at issue not be sold. This recommendation was overridden by the New Mexico State BLM Office, which is under pressure from the Bush administration to greatly increase rates of energy production on public lands.

In recommending that the lease sales not be issued, the Socorro Field Office also expressed concerns about impacts to the Continental Divide Trail as well as potential effects to nesting sites for raptors. A rich haven for wildlife, the lease area consists of rolling hills and grasslands home to prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, as well as golden eagles, prairie falcons and other raptors. This currently undeveloped area would be drastically altered by hundreds of new drilling pads, extensive road construction, wastewater ponds holding previously pristine groundwater, and air and noise pollution.

Fence Lake mine was long opposed by Native American tribes and environmental organizations, as planned groundwater withdrawals would have drained aquifers feeding Zuni Salt Lake, a central religious area and important environmental habitat. The protested lease sale permits coalbed methane development dependent on extensive groundwater pumping in the same area as the Fence Lake mine, thus posing similar risks to the Zuni Salt Lake as the recently abandoned SRP coal mining project.

"New Mexicans have long treasured the natural and scenic beauty of our state. Hunters, hikers,and families all seek the recreation and solitude that New Mexico landscapes provide. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration is opening up an unprecedented amount of New Mexico's special places, like the lands near Zuni Salt Lake,to the oil and gas industries," said Mary Wiper, Sierra Club Associate Representative.


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