Growing Coalition Opposes Drilling

Valle Vidal
An elk herd passes through Valle Vidal, N.M. on July 18, 2006. (Ray Watt - Photo By Ray Watt)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

VALLE VIDAL, N.M. -- Calving season has just ended in lush Carson National Forest, a fact that becomes obvious as three baby elk emerge from the woods with their mother in the midday sun. They are the newest members of a herd that has lived here for thousands of years, interrupted only at the beginning of the past century when humans killed them off -- and then promptly reintroduced them.

The natural beauty of this area of the forest, known as Valle Vidal, remained largely unblemished as the 101,000-acre mix of scenic conifer forests and open meadows became a sporting playground for Hollywood stars and moguls, and later for oil company executives, before the land was donated to the government in 1982 by Pennzoil Corp. and opened to the public.

Now, Valle Vidal has become a battleground in the drive to expand energy exploration on public land, attracting the attention of a growing coalition of hunters, anglers, environmentalists, ranchers, homeowners and politicians across the ideological spectrum.

Here and elsewhere in the Western United States, this coalition is starting to resist the push for energy exploration in some of the nation's most prized wilderness areas. Although it remains unclear how successful they will be, these new activists -- including many who treasure Valle Vidal as a place to fish for cutthroat trout, hunt for elk and ride horses across its wide expanses -- have brought a new dynamic to the public debate over energy development in the West.

"There's clearly a headlong rush into opening up these areas, but there's a recognition there's precious areas, beautiful landscapes that people appreciate and love," said Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). "In those cases, the equation swings over to protection."

Udall sponsored legislation to make Valle Vidal off-limits to oil and gas drilling and to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness in California, Idaho and Oregon. The House unanimously approved Udall's bill on Monday, and the issue is now before the Senate.

In two other states, prominent GOP senators -- Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Craig Thomas (Wyo.) -- have also pushed in the past month to restrict energy exploration on public land.

The debate over Valle Vidal began in 2002 when El Paso Corp. announced it wanted to explore drilling for coal-bed methane, which involves tapping into beds of coal and extracting water to release the trapped natural gas. The Forest Service must decide whether to allow it.

The U.S. government has already opened to drilling 85 percent of the federal oil and gas reserves in the Rocky Mountains' five major energy basins. Responding in part to increased demand and rising energy costs, in 2005 the administration issued almost twice as many drilling permits -- 7,018 -- as President Bill Clinton did in 2000.

But now resistance to drilling is growing, especially because environmentalists have enlisted sportsmen and other new allies in their fight, and because energy companies already have access to most of the public land in the Rocky Mountain West. In the case of Valle Vidal, two of the groups fighting hardest to preserve it are hunters, who vie for a once-in-a-lifetime state permit to shoot elk here, and devotees of the Philmont Scout Ranch, which is next to Valle Vidal and brings 3,000 Boy Scouts there to hike each year.

"Something is happening here," said Chris Wood, vice president for conservation at the advocacy group Trout Unlimited. "What we're seeing is the emergence of a powerful new voice in conservation. It's not your garden-variety environmental groups. It's hunters and anglers and outfitters and guides that are helping convince Democrats and Republicans alike of the need to protect these last places."

Steven Belinda, energy policy initiative manager at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a sporting group, shot an elk with his bow in Valle Vidal two years ago and is now mobilizing hunters to oppose drilling here. Numbering between 1,500 and 2,700, the forest's elk herd is one of the largest in the state, and a ban on off-road vehicles allows hunters to pursue the animals without the disruptive background noise.

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