Gov. Bill Richardson sent a letter Thursday to the Obama administration saying that any effort to consider national monument status for southern New Mexico's Otero Mesa has his support.
The governor's letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar referred to reports about an internal Interior Department document that lists 14 sites in nine states that could be designated as national monuments through the federal Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the authority to designate monuments without congressional approval.
Otero Mesa, which has become a battleground for environmentalists and the oil and gas industry, is on the list. The mesa is the largest publicly owned expanse of undisturbed Chihuahuan Desert grassland in the United States.
The department has said the list is just a product of brainstorming, but Richardson and environmentalists who have been seeking permanent protection for Otero Mesa say they are encouraged by the Obama administration's conservation initiatives thus far.
''The increased rigor and transparency of drilling reviews demonstrates a willingness to make needed improvements and learn from past actions in states like New Mexico,'' Richardson said in his letter.
The governor's letter also says Otero Mesa "encompasses approximately 1.2 million acres of Chihuahuan Desert, is a unique ecosystem that is home to rare desert grasslands, herds of pronghorn, prairie dog villages, mule deer, aplomado falcons and more than 345 of the world's 1,500 cacti species."
Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the mesa's water, wildlife and cultural record deserve to be protected.
"We feel Otero Mesa is a wild and beautiful place," Newcomer said. "I think it would be huge for Otero County. Otero Mesa is the largest and wildest expanse of natural grasslands left in the country. I think it would be a tremendous boon for you guys (Otero County)."
Newcomer said with 200 species of birds inhabiting Otero Mesa, the birding community alone would bring people from around the world to the mesa.
One of the arguments heard against making places into national monuments is that the land is being locked up, Newcomer said. But the opposite is true, he claims.
"The land is already public land and this would guarantee that land would be protected forever," he said. "It would be elevating that area as a very important landscape. Nothing is being taken away from anybody. We want people to see it and we want people to understand grassland ecosystems."
Otero County is lucky to have Otero Mesa in its "backyard," Newcomer said.
In April 2009, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals defeated a Bureau of Land Management plan for Otero Mesa that would have opened the area to oil and gas drilling. Since then, the governor and the conservation groups have urged the BLM and the Department of the Interior to permanently protect Otero Mesa, Newcomer said.
Otero County Commissioner Ronny Rardin briefly commented on the governor's request. His view is that making Otero Mesa into a national park could affect Otero County residents' land use rights.
"You have government, like the federal government, coming down on county land without considering our land use," Rardin said.
Rardin was attending an Otero County Commission meeting Thursday evening and was planning to introduce the issue to the other commissioners at that time. The meeting was not over as of press time.
The Governor's letter is here.