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The Last of the Southwest

Otero Mesa, The remnant of a forgotten grassland, looks for a little recognition

By Peter Frick-Wright

One of the best hopes for building lasting support for Otero Mesa is located on the western slope of Alamo Mountain, just a few miles from where HEYCO Energy Group first struck gas 15 years ago. The next day, I started my final ride there, streaking past windmills spinning slowly and cattle lowing good morning.

Alamo Mountain first caught wilderness advocate Styve Homnick's eye as he perused a coffee-table book sent to him by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. Though he'd worked on the Mescalero Apache reservation in his 20s and maintained friendships within the tribe, he'd never heard of its petroglyphs or ceremonial grounds. He asked a few friends in the tribe. They hadn't heard of them either.

"To not know these things, it was embarrassing," Mescalero elder Ted Rodriguez said.

Tribal history is a precious commodity for Apache tribes, which have been losing their language and culture since the U.S. government's policy of dislocation and assimilation created a gap in their oral tradition.

Homnick, Rodriguez, and several other tribal elders drove out to Otero Mesa in 2010 and found themselves in awe. Golden eagles swooped by, and pronghorn matched pace with their truck. Rodriguez had an overwhelming sense that his ancestors were speaking to him. "It got to the point that I didn't feel like it was an accident that we were out here," he said. "It captivated me."

Looping around the mountain's edge, I followed roads connecting stock ponds and paused occasionally to work up the nerve to play chicken with stubborn cattle. The route's terminus left me on the west side of the mountain, near the gated entrance to the petroglyph site. Walking up toward the peak, I began to understand why some Apache tribal members refer to Alamo Mountain as "a church."

The petroglyphs materialized on scattered slabs of volcanic rock as I closed the distance. A body with two heads and four arms hugged the rock with spread-eagle abandon; wind gods held court on their rocky perch; a rattlesnake dropped from the sky. There were abstract patterns, winged spirits, horned figures, and a handprint impressed like an artist's signature.

I found the unmistakable humped back of a buffalo, which used to roam the mesa, and myriad faces, symbols, and designs. Some looked to have been drawn with careful practice, others with a child's whimsy. All represented a collective history the loss of which I could not fathom.

I had spent five lonely days in Otero Mesa feeling sick, sluggish, and pessimistic about its chance of survival. Then I spent two hours looking at the petroglyphs and grew hopeful.

Since the Mescalero elders were made aware of the petroglyphs, they've had good news. In June 2011, a group of Apache, including Rodriguez, traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for national monument designation. While they do not represent the tribe in an official, political sense, they found lawmakers receptive and plan to go back. In November, with help from Homnick, two local newspapers began publishing weekly sections on Otero Mesa. Ranchers report a noticeable increase in visiting hikers.

Back at Alamo Mountain, I found a spot to rest on the dark rocks overlooking the mesa, with radiating heat soothing my spastic lungs. My view was the same crispy grass I'd seen on arrival, but after a week in the mesa, it no longer looked empty. I knew where to find pronghorn loping into the distance and how to surprise wandering badgers. I knew where the grasslands were succumbing to the sand and where they were thriving, with dormant wildflowers poised for a leap to knee height come November rain.

But this panorama offered something else. There was a car parked in a well-worn, dusty semicircle near the road, and I could see strands of footprints from weekend visitors beginning to cohere into a trail. A map of Alamo Mountain struggled in the wind against the side of a bush; a shiny sliver of granola bar wrapper winked in the sunlight. It wasn't hard to picture crowds shuffling past the petroglyphs and then lunching in a wind-sheltered alcove, before returning home ready to make a fuss the next time someone proposed drilling or mining here.
I gathered the litter on my way down the hill, taking its presence as an odd sign of hope.

Peter Frick-Wright is a frequent contributor to Sierra.
These articles were funded and reviewed by the Sierra Club's Resilient Habitats program.

By Debbie Sease

I grew up in southern New Mexico, which, given the size of the West, means that Otero Mesa was practically my backyard. Some say that the place is an acquired taste, but it seduced me overnight. Its vast, undulating expanse of Chihuahuan desert grassland is interspersed with volcanic peaks and cut by arroyos where the intermittent presence of water concentrates plant and animal life. The sky and land appear to be painted on a vast canvas in a way that forces the eye to focus afar—on a vista that changes minute to minute with the arc of the sun and drifting shadows of clouds.

Otero Mesa is a landscape that defines the state's slogan: Land of Enchantment.

If you drive by at 60 miles per hour (or even 20), you will never know this land, may in fact wonder what the fuss is about. It is only when you slow your pace, step off the road, venture over the next rise and down into a draw, that you begin to experience its richness. In summer, settle into a shady spot. In winter, lean against a sun-warmed rock. And then just sit for a spell. First you will sense the silence, and then, as your hearing calibrates to the quiet, you may catch the syncopated two-note whistle of a burrowing owl or the piercing call of a hawk. In spring, the wind whines through grass. The small hooves of piglike javelina click on stones.

This rich collection of wildlife and wide-open spaces makes Otero Mesa a good location for hiking, camping, birdwatching, and horseback riding. It's why the state's former secretary of tourism described the region's recreational opportunities as "magical." And he wasn't even talking about the stunning assembly of petroglyphs on Alamo Mountain.

The petroglyphs alone are sufficient justification to protect this area by declaring it a national monument. But it's the grassland's ecological significance that has driven conservationists to spend decades fighting to preserve the place. Biologists who describe Otero Mesa as the "last, best desert grassland" and a "window into the evolutionary past" are not engaging in hyperbole. This is virtually the only remaining large-scale intact desert grassland in the Southwest. When Francisco Vasquez de Coronado rode through this part of the country five centuries ago, it was dominated by endless miles of such grassland. Today, because of cattle grazing, human development, and the diversion of groundwater, the vast majority of that landscape has been converted to less biologically productive desert shrubs.

Thanks to a lucky convergence of geology and isolation, Otero Mesa was spared that fate. Its grasslands continue to protect the fragile soil from erosion and to provide a refuge for the many species of plants and animals that depend on such habitat, as they have for thousands of years.

But now the area faces threats from oil and natural gas drillers and from mining companies hoping to extract rare earth minerals. Such development would fragment the mesa and threaten its aquifer. Local conservationists have sought to protect the place in a variety of ways. Bills are currently pending to designate parts of Otero Mesa as a federal wilderness area. But since Congress shows no sign of being able to move this legislation, hopes have turned to President Barack Obama.

Under the Antiquities Act, the president has the power with the stroke of his pen to declare Otero Mesa a national monument. He can make this unique biological and archaeological treasure off-limits to oil and gas development. He can ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy "America's Serengeti" rather than regret an open-pit mine.

Mr. President, it's time for bold action.

Debbie Sease is the legislative director of the Sierra Club.

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