The Otero Mesa. At over 1.2 million acres, it’s a vast treasure southeast of Alamogordo and west of Carlsbad. Most of it is public land. And about a half a million acres are desert grassland, a rare and disappearing habitat for some 1,000 native species.
Kevin Bixby has been working to save this place for more than a decade. A court win against the administration of George W. Bush protected it from increased oil and gas drilling. But there are fears it could be at risk again.
“So, our concern is that if Otero Mesa is opened up for full scale oil and gas development, is that there will be hundreds, if not thousands of these well pads out here, each one scraping off five acres of vegetation, piling up the topsoil, building a road to access it, pipelines to access it as well, most likely, or else lots of trucks coming and going,” said Bixby.
Trucks and development don’t sound like a good idea to Alex Abair. He likes the peace of this place and its access to natural wonders hard to find anywhere else. Abair studies plants at New Mexico State University.
“Well, this is a hotspot for diversity, especially with grasses, and it’s unusual in that it’s not very disturbed. It’s hard to find a place like that in the United States where there’s undisturbed pristine land and this is a great spot for it, particularly with grasses and it’s just a great place to explore species diversity,” said Abair.
“This is so important. Grasslands across North America, we’ve lost most of them. As an ecosystem, they’ve been hit harder than almost any other type of ecosystem. Most of the grasslands in the Great Plains have been converted to farms. Out here we have this very significant treasure, because we have managed to save this large desert grassland on Otero Mesa. And as grasslands have disappeared, so too have the wildlife that depend on grasslands. Species like pronghorn, and prairie dogs, and a whole host of grassland birds. And that’s why we need to save a place like this,” added Bixby.
On our journey in the Otero Mesa, we saw many examples of wildlife. This was the third herd of pronghorn we saw on the trip in this amazing desert grassland.
The animals and plants of Otero Mesa have little company. Dirt roads mean relatively few people are here at any one time. And oil and gas development has been minimal. But Kevin Bixby showed us what can happen when drilling is allowed.
“Well, this is one of the Hueco wells that have been drilled out on Otero Mesa. They’ve drilled two so far and they have the green light to build a third. So, for each of these wells, a five acre well pad is constructed; basically, means scraping off all of the vegetation and piling up the topsoil in the corner of the well pad,” said Bixby.
There have been efforts to save this mostly public land from additional development. Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson even asked the Obama administration to create an Otero Mesa National Monument. But that didn’t happen.
In addition to providing a rare habitat for animal and plants, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance says thousands of ancient petroglyphs and archeological sites can be found here. An impressive sight for Alex Abair.
“It’s the largest panels I’ve seen before. I’ve been to South America, Central America, and all over the United States doing archeology and I’ve never seen panels like this before. And they’re intricate drawings, they’re confusing. I don’t know what they are, but they’re fascinating. And they’re everywhere. You walk a step, and you find a new one,” noted Abair.
Haneen Omari was also impressed. A student with Abair at New Mexico State University, Omari studies microorganisms found in Otero Mesa, but she also marvels at the petroglyphs, providing clues of ancient civilizations.
“I think it’s awesome. I’ve honestly never seen petroglyphs to this scale. Usually, you’ll see something on the side of a big mountain, and it’s like a little drawing. But here, they’re amazing. It looks like a map honestly. I said that earlier. But I think it just shows that humans do have a history with utilizing the land, but I think the difference between now and the past, they live more simpler, but it was also like they weren’t trying to destroy the land to extract goods from it. They were just utilizing it as a tool instead of a means to an end kind of thing,” said Omari.
While scientists study the remnants of past civilizations, there’s also a focus on modern times and a modern way of life that often neglects natural treasures. So, what could convince people to appreciate places like Otero Mesa? Alex Abair has an idea: more people should experience it.
“People just don’t have a lot of experience going outside. I think if people get the experience of going outside and seeing what’s different about this place, they’ll be excited about it. And just realizing what’s at risk. It’s not just this habitat that’s at risk. It’s a network and we’re all connected. When things here are destroyed, it affects everybody. And it’s a cultural treasure. If this gets destroyed, it’s gone forever. And we might have photographs, but it’s lost,” said Abair.
Losing Otero Mesa to oil and gas drilling is unthinkable to Kevin Bixby. He says the fight will continue.
“We believe this is the largest desert grassland remaining in North America. There's about half a million acres of grassland out here. And most people don’t realize that much of southern New Mexico was originally grassland. And after the civil war, we had large herds of livestock introduced into the area massive overstocking of the range. That, in combination with drought, led to most of those grasslands disappearing, and through a process of desertification, becoming scrubland, dominating by shrubs like mesquite and creosote,” said Bixby.
Besides wildlife, Otero Mesa also holds what could be a priceless treasure as drought continues to threaten southern New Mexico and all of the southwest.
The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance says this land sits on top of the Salt Basin Aquifer. The Alliance says it could be the largest, untapped fresh water aquifer left in the state of New Mexico.
Above ground and below, advocates say the Otero Mesa deserves permanent protection.