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Addressing the many threats to wildlife

By Ken Jones, New Mexico Wild Board Member
Santa Fe New Mexican | August 31, 2019

The elk, mule deer, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, Rio Grande cutthroat trout and other wildlife that call the Upper Rio Grande Watershed home don’t recognize boundary lines like the state line between New Mexico and Colorado or those between the Carson, Santa Fe and Rio Grande national forests that together make up one of the best-connected wildlife landscapes in America.

That’s why it is critical that the three national forests comprising almost 5 million acres across Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado coordinate their forest planning and management efforts to protect critical habitat and wildlife migration routes from new road building, mineral extraction and energy development.

The recent release of the Rio Grande National Forest’s final land management plan and the draft plans released last week by the Carson and Santa Fe national forests, reveal some progress and several glaring gaps in the Forest Service’s approach to addressing landscape connectivity in the Upper Rio Grande.

Landscape connectivity is a critical ecological function, and the Upper Rio Grande is an important landscape for many species in the southern Rockies. Connectivity ensures wildlife can access breeding grounds, migrate seasonally, maintain diverse genetics, adapt to human development and respond to range shifts in the face of fire and climate change. A key tool to facilitate connectivity is the identification and management of corridors to support wildlife movement between core areas and across landscapes.

The Carson and Santa Fe National Forest draft plans include important improvements for habitat protection and connectivity, including the Caja del Rio Wildlife and Cultural Interpretive Special Management Area, the San Antonio Management Area and the Valle Vidal Management Area. As some of the most ecologically rich habitats in North America, these areas will help connect a vital wildlife corridor that runs from Colorado to Mexico.

Unfortunately, the Rio Grande National Forest failed to include important special-interest areas, and none of the three plans yet includes strong enough language about prohibiting road building and motorized trails, mineral extraction or energy development in the special wildlife management areas.

In addition, all three forests provide critical habitat for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, an iconic species that has begun the slow process of recovery after years of decline. The Rio Grande, Carson and Santa Fe plans should all include Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep as a “species of conservation concern,” given that bighorn populations remain vulnerable due to habitat fragmentation and loss and the threat of disease.

The Upper Rio Grande Watershed offers a unique opportunity to get it right and provide landscape connectivity, rather than a patchwork of habitat, to allow critical wildlife species to recover and thrive. To accomplish appropriate regional corridors for wildlife, forest plans should acknowledge that coordinated actions between forest administrative units and other stakeholders must occur.

There is still time to improve all three national forest land management plans. With our rapidly developing and ever-changing landscape, it is critical that national forest land management plans are better integrated and create appropriate adaptive management practices to develop scientifically sound and balanced multiuse plans that address the many threats to wildlife while maintaining the important culture and traditions tied to this iconic landscape.

Ken Jones is a retired banker, avid hunter and serves on the board of directors of New Mexico Wild.

This guest column originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

County Commission creates new rules for hard-rock mining

By Robert Nott | Santa Fe New Mexican
August 27, 2019

The Santa Fe County Commission on Tuesday unanimously added requirements to the county land code regarding hard-rock mining.

Applicants will have to submit a background report that includes whether a proposed project has the potential to adversely impact public health, safety and welfare; a sampling and analysis plan regarding potential impacts to the county’s water, soil, vegetation and other natural resources; and a greenhouse gas analysis.

The county also wants mining companies to conduct a technical and financial feasibility assessment that includes a description of debt and equity at each phase of the operation and estimated annual costs. Finally, all large-scale sand and gravel mining operations in the county must provide a closure plan.

“This spells out what our options are going to be for regulating any mining applications we get,” Commissioner Anna Hamilton said.

Tuesday’s vote was the latest action in a series of public discussions on rules governing mining operations under county jurisdiction. Currently there are no such operations, county spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said.

An Australian-owned company wants to conduct exploratory drilling for minerals on Santa Fe National Forest land near Terrero, north of the village of Pecos. New World Cobalt is seeking federal permission to begin exploration this autumn.

The county ordinance can’t prevent that operation, County Attorney Bruce Frederick said Tuesday, noting federal law allows mining operations on federal forest land that comply with environmental standards.

However, several people who spoke during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting said they hope the county’s adoption of the new rules will have some impact on the Pecos Canyon project.

“If companies can’t commit to the safeguards we put in this ordinance, maybe they shouldn’t be coming here,” said Roger Taylor, president of the Galisteo Community Association.

Some 100 people attended Tuesday’s hearing, with about 20 speaking on the issue. No one spoke against the ordinance. But a woman, who said she represents the sand and gravel industry, said the hard-rock requirements could have an “umbrella effect” that could cause problems.

Issues concerning hard-rock mining in the county have come up in the past. Some five years ago, hundreds of county residents protested a proposed basalt mining project on La Bajada Mesa, saying it would ruin scenic views and stir up dust and noise from blasting. In 2015, the county commission rejected the mine proposal.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

‘No’ to proposed mining in the Pecos Wilderness

By Harris Klein, President of the Bosque Chapter of Trout Unlimited
Albuquerque Journal | August 11, 2019

In June, the Albuquerque Journal published an article revealing plans by Comexico LLC, a subsidiary of New World Cobalt, to mine in the Santa Fe National Forest north of Pecos. Comexico submitted an application to drill exploratory boreholes near the Pecos River, the first steps in plans for a large-scale mining operation in the upper Pecos watershed.

Due to an antiquated bill dating from 1872, foreign companies like Comexico have free and unfettered access to state mining claims on America’s public lands. Senator Udall and Representative Grijalva of Arizona have introduced bills that would allow land managers to weigh other uses of public lands, such as outdoor recreation, and the values of local communities when evaluating mining proposals. The 1872 mining law makes it easy for foreign companies to mine our public lands and leave U.S. taxpayers to pay for cleanup. These bills would help ensure mining companies pay their fair share.

The Pecos River is an important watershed and one of our state’s most popular outdoor tourism destinations. Cold, clean water that originates on national forest lands and flows through Pecos Canyon is a vital resource to New Mexico, especially for downstream communities and landowners. The location where Comexico plans to begin mining is near the site of the old Tererro Mines, which contaminated the Pecos River, killing thousands of fish, and became a Superfund site that cost taxpayers $28 million to clean up.

Trout Unlimited is one of many organizations in New Mexico opposed to any new hardrock mines in the upper Pecos watershed. A large-scale mine on over 4,300 acres of public lands in one of our state’s top outdoor destinations is contrary to the goals of growing New Mexico’s recreation economy and increasing outdoor tourism. The Pecos River and the 223,000-acre Pecos Wilderness draw people from around the world, and any investments in this area should be aimed at increasing jobs and tax revenue provided by small businesses reliant on the region’s pubic lands, trails, waters and wildlife. A large-scale hardrock mining operation in the upper Pecos is incompatible with such efforts.

Harris Klein, of Albuquerque, is president of the Bosque Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

This guest column originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

Santa Fe County adopts new mining rules

By T.S. Last | Albuqueruqe Journal
September 1, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. — A public hearing on an ordinance to amend county’s Land Use Development Code wasn’t supposed to be about the prospect of a new mining operation north of Pecos.

But nearly all of the 18 people who spoke during the hearing at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting referenced the proposed project by Comexico LLC, a subsidiary of an Australian firm that has filed an application to conduct mineral exploration in the Santa Fe National Forest near Tererro on the eastern edge of Santa Fe County.

County officials made clear that the amendments to the ordinance covering hardrock mining weren’t specific to the Comexico project.

Yet, residents of the area, geologists, attorneys and representatives of such groups as the Upper Pecos Watershed, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and New Mexico Acequia Association all expressed opposition to renewed mining near Tererro at the former site of a mining operation dating back to the 1930s. The old mine wasn’t cleaned up and resulted in an environmental disaster decades later.

The first speaker, Carlos Valdez, who said he lives in the upper Pecos valley, recalled how runoff from a heavy snow melt in 1991 sent toxic metals into the Pecos River, killing nearly 10,000 rainbow trout at a state hatchery and resulting in $28 million worth of reclamation work.

“We don’t want that happening all over again,” he said.

Joseph Simpson, whose family began homesteading in Tererro in the 1800s, remembered fish dying, too, along with trees along the riverbank.

He said companies shouldn’t have the right to take minerals from the national forest.

“This is our land. This is the people’s land,” he said.

Other speakers raised concerns about the impact mining would have on water quality, wildlife and tourism in an area that has become a popular destination for campers, hikers, anglers and summer homes.

Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation who ran as a Democrat for state land commissioner last year and once worked as a fishing guide on the Pecos River, said regulating hardrock mining was no small thing. He said there were thousands of mining claims in New Mexico and that the new county amendments would create a “line in the sand.” He also talked about the “unity of community” that had galvanized against the exploration project near the Pecos Wilderness.

“Everyone is together on this,” he said. “We’re going to stop this thing.”

County attorney Bruce Frederick said what the mining ordinance does is assert county jurisdiction on federal land. He said that while the county lacks land use and zoning authority on federal lands, it does have the authority to regulate what goes on within county boundaries.

He said the amendments adopted by the commission would cover all new mining operations, meaning whatever mining might result from Comexico’s exploratory drilling would be subject to the new county regulations.

According to county documents, under the new regulations, applicants for large-scale sand and gravel and hardrock mining operations must provide a background report that includes information about stockholders’ holdings, subsidiaries, previously owned and operated projects, and any enforcement action against them.

They also must submit a sampling and analysis plan that describes the location, geology and ecology at the site, and methods to be used. There also must be a technical and financial feasibility assessment, including an estimate of reclamation costs and schedules.

In addition, the rules mandate a greenhouse gas analysis and a plan to offset emissions. Finally, the applicant must provide a closure plan with a final report describing post-closure monitoring.

The five-member County Commission unanimously approved the amendments. When the vote was taken, the about 100 attendees applauded and were joined by some of the commissioners themselves.

Earlier in the meeting, the commission passed a resolution relating to the Tererro mining exploration project, authorizing staff to participate in state and federal administrative proceedings related to the application. In a statement provided to the Journal, Commission chair Anna Hamilton said the resolution “encourages staff to participate with state and federal agencies to maximize public participation, conduct (a National Environment Policy Act) analysis, and assures adequate and enforceable conditions.”

This article originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.