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Help Protect Southeast New Mexico’s Wild Chihuahuan Desert

Last year I was lucky enough to work with Joelle Marier of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance as a conservation photographer on her project to protect the wildlands of south-eastern New Mexico. Now we have an update from Joelle on the work she is doing in the region. (All photos by Jim O’Donnell)

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We are fortunate in the West to have millions of acres of public lands right in our backyards. Places to hike, hunt, camp, fish, relax, horseback ride, bike, or just enjoy beautiful views. Places with clean air, clean water, wildlife and healthy natural ecosystems. With public lands surrounding many western communities it’s easy to take them for granted, to assume they’ll remain healthy, wild and free from development long into the future.

With increasing pressure from corporate interests seeking to use our public lands for profit, there is a need – right now – for us to fight to maintain the integrity of our public lands. The first step in this challenging path is to raise public awareness about the laws and policies that support our public lands legacy. The second step is to make sure the voice of public land users and public land lovers is heard and incorporated into land management decisions during the land-use planning process.

Chihuahuan Desert

Communities of southeast New Mexico are in the thick of this challenge right now as the Carlsbad Bureau of Land Management (BLM) draws near to a public comment period on their revised Resource Management Plan. Getting this plan right is important because it will guide management of all BLM lands in the region for the next two to three decades. As major oil and gas-related companies like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and Haliburton move operations to the Permian Basin, often looking to BLM lands to boost profits, it is imperative to ensure conservation takes a front seat in the revised plan. Community support is an integral component of gaining ground for conservation and protecting our public lands legacy.

What’s at stake?

Southeast New Mexico is like no other region of our state. Here, a vast Chihuahuan desert is broken by high, dry mountains and meandering desert rivers, creating a rich diversity of habitats, scenery, and life. Oil and gas are not the only significant resources here. This remote corner of our state boasts two national parks, several wilderness study areas, extensive National Forest lands, and hundreds of thousands of acres of wild BLM lands spanning a huge region Chihuahuan desert habitat.

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Caves are what most imagine in thinking about the Carlsbad area. But, like much of New Mexico, there is more here than meets the eye. Below ground, over 3,000 caves weave beneath the Guadalupe Mountains and surrounding terrain. Extensive cave networks create a unique and specialized habitat component and act as filtering systems for recharge of the Capitan Aquifer below.

chihuahuan desert

The surface of southeast New Mexico is as complex as the subsurface. Three desert rivers – the Pecos, the Black, and the Delaware – meander through surrounding desert grass and shrub lands, supporting rare riparian habitat along their shores and contributing to rich biological diversity. In the deep limestone canyons of the Guadalupes, freshwater springs create lush microhabitats amid the dry mountain landscape. East of the range salt playas with crystalline shorelines are bounded by rust-red sand dunes – in ancient times these places drew native peoples in search of game and materials. In fact, this region of New Mexico has supported human habitation over the past 10,000 years. Pictographs abound on many canyon walls. Artifacts and lithics emerge from the dry earth. A keen eye may reveal an agave roasting pit or a rut from the Butterfield Stagecoach route.

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In his book, New Mexico’s Wilderness Areas: The Complete Guide, Bob Julyan describes this stretch of Chihuahuan desert:

The intensely red blossoms of claret-cup cacti, the whirr of opalescent hummingbirds, unexpected pools of water, and animals — such as javalinas, Mexican spotted owls, mule deer and elk, coyotes and foxes, mountain lions and bobcats, rabbits and squirrels — remind us that for all the environment’s harshness, life is also here, varied and abundant. And perhaps most beguiling of all is the desert night when the air is warm and rabbit-fur soft, and the sky is filled with more stars than you’ve ever seen before.

Perhaps most striking are the layered and steep limestone faces of the Guadalupe Mountains that rise over 2,000 feet from the surrounding desert terrain. Once an ancient barrier reef, the Guadalupes of today are studded with fossils and retain plant species from the last Ice Age – like Texas Madrone. Serpentine canyons wind down from the main ridge, creating almost endless opportunities for exploration. Views from the top of the range are spectacular, providing a bird’s eye view of much of southeast New Mexico and West Texas. The Guadalupes are also home to Guadalupe Peak, the highest point both in the range and in the state of Texas.

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Together, these wildland resources not only provide for the species who need them, but also create a worthy base for building upon southeast New Mexico’s recreation-based economy. For area residents, preserving and even expanding these recreation opportunities not only secures an influx of revenue, it also creates a niche for new businesses like outfitter-guides, outdoor equipment retailers, and others to gain a toehold while providing an alternative to oil and gas-related jobs and supporting environmentally friendly economic and community growth. This type of economic diversification can help local economies better weather the ups and downs so common with extractive industry.

The Threats

In stark contrast, many lands east of the Guadalupe Mountains – in the Permian Basin – are inundated with industrial development. Grids of oil and gas-related infrastructure – roads, power lines, well pads, and drill rigs – sprawl across a landscape that has paid a heavy price for human use since the West was won. Over 75% of the BLM land here is leased to oil and gas. Southeast New Mexico is one of the largest oil producers in the country and is home to one of the largest potash deposits in the world. The economic contributions of these industries are huge for a poor state like New Mexico, but come at the cost of natural beauty, spectacular open spaces, preservation of cultural sites, rare habitats and unique southwestern landscapes.

chihuahuan desert

In southeast New Mexico, much of this development has remained isolated in the Permian Basin, leaving vast expanses of wild country still free from the scars of corporate greed and the unrealistic drive for endless growth. But, as we’ve seen in other parts of our state, new resource extraction technologies, demand, and a drive for corporate profit create almost constant pressure from industry for more development. Right now, local decision-makers are at a crossroads. The pressure from industry is mounting, but more industrial development will soon impact opportunities to capitalize on potential recreation-based economic generators.

chihuahuan desert

Oil and gas development has shown dramatic increases in southeast New Mexico over the past two decades with more to come. Historically, BLM lands in the West have catered to industry, despite a multiple use mission. Careful, forward-thinking planning by public land managers that considers not just benefits to industry, but also upholds the responsibility to caretake and steward our country’s public lands is the only way to ensure our public lands legacy provides future generations with the freedoms, services and experiences we are so fortunate to enjoy on our public lands today.

Help Protect Southeast New Mexico’s Wild Chihuahuan Desert

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is currently working to gain protection for the important habitats, wildlands and cultural areas in southeast New Mexico through the Carlsbad BLM’s land use planning process. Successful protection of these areas through recognition of Lands with Wilderness Characteristics and designation of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern will help support area wildlife and preserve the unique natural and cultural resources found here. These special management designations will also help maintain quality of life for area residents and offer the potential for economic growth through outdoor recreation tourism.

chihuahuan desert

As more and more Americans look to our public lands for recreation, solitude, inspiration and their livelihoods modern-day land managers must accommodate, but they need our support to do this. If you’re a lover of southern New Mexico’s wild lands and care about maintaining our state’s unique natural and cultural heritage, we need your voice in this upcoming plan revision. The draft comment period, slated to run from June through September of 2017, will be our last opportunity to ensure the BLM hears a loud and clear voice for conservation in southeast New Mexico. Please join us in telling the agency to protect remaining wildlands and conserve important habitats in southeast New Mexico’s wild Chihuahuan desert.  First, please sign the online petition. Then….

chihuahuan desert

For more information about how you can help protect southeast New Mexico’s Wild Chihuahuan Desert contact Joelle Marier at



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