Valle Vidal is a natural wonder and thriving ecosystem – and it sits precariously atop valuable methane.

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

INSIDE THE CARSON NATIONAL FOREST – Oscar Simpson scrabbles up a sandstone wall 1,000 feet above the forest floor and rests at the top, looking.

Below him, nearly 40,000 acres of the Valle Vidal stretch out with mint and olive greens, slivers of rusty reds and cornstalk yellows, dots of chocolatey browns.

It’s photogenic terrain superior to what any landscape painter could depict, home to thousands of Rocky Mountain elk, Rio Grande cutthroat trout and microscopic fairy shrimp.

Simpson, president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, takes a breath, looking across the slice of northern New Mexico framed by some of the state’s highest peaks.

To him, the eastern section of the 101,000 acres of the Carson known as the Valle Vidal Unit is a treasure that provides once-in-a-lifetime elk hunts, fishing, camping and horseback riding.

Others see it as a potential site for coal bed methane drilling.

“There are some places that just shouldn’t be destroyed,” said Simpson, also a spokesman for the Coalition for the Valle Vidal, a group working to stop a 2002 request to the U.S. Forest Service by the El Paso Corp. to consider the area for drilling.

“That’s all we’re asking, is to protect this one little area. The rest of it is open (to energy development),” he says of the Raton Basin, of which the Valle Vidal is a tiny part.

El Paso Corp. spokesman Joe Hollier says the 40,000 acres can be drilled in a way that could fit into the environment. He points to the company’s drilling on Ted Turner’s 500,000-acre Vermejo Ranch, which abuts the Valle Vidal.

“We feel that’s a prime way to do it correctly,” he said. The wildlife has “adapted to the facility very well.”

There, 621 drill pads are spaced every 160 acres, and the surrounding landscape is used to minimize sound and hide the wells, Hollier said. Some of the equipment is painted green.

It’s up to the Forest Service to decide whether to open the area to drilling. If it gives approval, the service would regulate how many and how far apart the drill pads would be on the Valle Vidal.

The agency would also decide the pace of drilling, Hollier said, so it’s hard to know how much coal could be extracted at a time.

Simpson, who used to work for the state regulating the oil and gas industry, said the acreage in dispute would yield between 11 and 36 hours of national energy consumption over 20 years.

And, he said, there’s no way to make drilling equipment pretty.

“I don’t care if you hide it behind a tree or not, it still disrupts wildlife. It turns it into an industrial zone. That’s all there is to it,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat from Santa Fe, has introduced a measure that would permanently prevent drilling in the valle. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Resources is expected hold a hearing on the bill Thursday.

“This is a magnificent area, which deserves protection,” he said.

Udall said he started thinking about his bill after taking a tour of the area with Forest Service officials. The agency doesn’t have the authority to withdraw land from future exploration, which is what his measure would do.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Silver City Democrat, also has a measure pending before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. It would turn the area into a national preserve and prevent drilling. A hearing hasn’t been scheduled on that bill.

But Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said it’s premature to consider any such measures.

“The Forest Service should make a decision first as to what would be allowed and where,” he said. “Then, if politicians want to get on the bandwagon, that’s fine.”

Gov. Bill Richardson, a first-term Democrat and former U.S. energy secretary, is pushing a plan that would prohibit degrading the area’s lakes and streams by designating them as outstanding natural resources.

U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, an Albuquerque Republican, is New Mexico’s only GOP lawmaker to come out against drilling the area using current coal bed methane technology.

Simpson, who hunts elk and deer, said his coalition, which includes 800 businesses and groups, is focused on the measures before Congress, because there’s nothing else that could stop energy exploration.

It can take months, if not years, to get a measure through Capitol Hill, he said.

“An act of Congress is the only thing that would protect it permanently,” Simpson said, standing on a cushy bed of pine needles nearly 2,000 miles from D.C.

The needles are where some of the 2,500 elk who live here bed down at night, cuddling against the cold.

The Valle Vidal, or Valley of Abundant Life, is home to the most concentrated elk herd in the state. Wild turkeys wander, and bouquets of wildflowers thrive.

People come by the thousands from across the nation to camp, hike, hunt, fish, take photos and just get away. Visitors include the Boy Scouts, whose Philmont Scout Ranch is nearby.

About 6,000 individuals have joined the coalition in hopes of persuading the federal government to leave the area alone.

The group includes hunters, ranchers, fishers, area business owners and horseback riders.

“It’s not just an isolated group of environmentalists. It’s a broad-based coalition,” Udall said.

About 50,000 people visit the area each year, according to the state Game and Fish Department. Simpson fears those visitors, who bring between $3 million and $5 million a year to primarily Colfax and Taos counties, won’t show up if there is drilling.

The elk that attract so many won’t stick around, either, he said.

“If you want to have a wildlife area and energy exploration, they aren’t compatible,” he said.

Gallagher disagrees.

“They can coexist easily with energy production,” he said.

Near the base of Big Costilla Peak, a 12,739-foot-tall rock pushed up out of the earth, Susan Clagett and Lisa Mandeville walk along the Rio Costilla Creek with their chow mix, Bear.

“We come here because there’s no people, no traffic,” Mandeville said. “How many other places can you come to like this?”

The pair, who work at a souvenir shop in Red River, hike or fish in the valle a few times a week. They don’t want drilling there.

When tourists ask them for advice on local places to visit, they sometimes hesitate to reveal the existence of a gigantic, gorgeous forest nearby.

“We’ve seen bear and their cubs, bald eagles and elk like you wouldn’t believe. . . . You don’t want to tell anybody about it,” Clagett said.

If the Forest Service does give the go-ahead for leases to drill, they would visit less often.

“This is a love affair,” Clagett said. “How did the oil and gas people find this place?”

Published Oct. 24, 2005.