Small advocates grassland protection

Hannah Jastram

“Has anyone ever been to New Mexico?”
Nathan Small asked this question of a group of about 15 audience members Tuesday evening. I tentatively raised my hand, vaguely remembering a family trip to Albuquerque. A young man in the group had been to Santa Fe.
Those places are nice, Small said. “But it’s not New Mexico.”
Nathan Small works with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, a grassroots environmental organization dedicated to protecting the wilderness of New Mexico. Small’s appearance was part of a Midwest outreach tour focusing on his group’s campaign to preserve the Otero Mesa from harmful development.
“What I’d like to do with you all is to give you a taste – literally,” he said, gesturing to the salsa he brought, “give you a taste of the land.”
Small began by describing Otero Mesa. At 1.2 million acres, it is North America’s largest and wildest Chihuahuan Desert grassland. Small compared grasslands to Wisconsin’s own wetlands. “They’re very easy to develop … easy to lose them, really hard to replace them.”
Oil and gas drilling threaten this piece of wilderness. “Drilling is not wildlife friendly,” Small said. “It’s definitely not water friendly.” This is of especial concern for Otero Mesa because, according to Small’s data, the land has enough drinking water to supply a large city for 50 years. Small then played a DVD that showed images of the unspoiled Otero Mesa and, in contrast, wilderness of other areas spoiled by drilling.
The DVD contained clips of a small businessman, a hydrologist, and a sixth-generation rancher speaking of the importance of preserving the wild areas of New Mexico. One interviewee criticized the Bush administration’s use of the phrase “states’ rights,” noting that the state of New Mexico wishes to protect its wilderness but the national government presses forward regardless.
The DVD concluded by advocating technological innovation to perfect the efficiency of alternative energy sources with the goal of self-sufficiency. It urged viewers to consider the issue of oil drilling in Otero Mesa as “not a question of economics, but rather one of morality.” The parting image was President Bush’s address superimposed on an image of Otero Mesa.
Small paused to get a reaction from the audience. “Heart wrenching,” said one man. Another was surprised that he had not heard of the issue before. Banishing this ignorance is what Small’s tour is all about.
Small answered some questions before starting a slide show that highlighted the beauty of New Mexico in general and Otero Mesa in particular. Scenes of colorful mountains, a pristine river, and wildlife were punctuated by quotes from the likes of Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahnhiser, prominent advocates of wildlife preservation.
Once the slides ended, Small handed out blank sheets of paper. The group began to write letters asking New Mexico senator Jeff Bingaman to introduce legislation in support of protecting Otero Mesa from oil and gas drilling. Small stressed the longevity of the task of protecting wilderness, echoing the words of Zahnhiser: “We are not dealing with a vanishing wilderness. We are working for a wilderness for ever.