By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; A01
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.
"While I was hunting, I didn't have to worry about anyone coming in on me or all-terrain vehicles," Belinda said. "It was incredible."
El Paso officials have not said whether they would go ahead with drilling in Valle Vidal, and a decision to allow energy exploration might well attract competitors. But spokesman Bruce Connery said El Paso would probably model any operation on the coal-bed methane project it operates on Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch, adjacent to Valle Vidal. Turner, who bought the surface rights to the ranch, negotiated environmental restrictions that include quieter electric pumps, buried power lines and a limit on how many people can be on the land at the same time.
Connery called the Vermejo Park operation "one of the most ecologically friendly" development projects in the nation. "The Valle Vidal is obviously a very special place. If it is developed, it needs to be done carefully," he said.
But Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), who signed on to Udall's bill late last month, said she could not reconcile drilling with Valle Vidal's value to the public for recreation.
"We're an energy-producing state. We're also a beautiful state," Wilson said. "The road network that serves the wellhead is not compatible with the wilderness experience."
In other parts of the West, newer residents who have arrived seeking a closer connection to nature have also voiced objections to oil and gas drilling. Sen. Thomas recently toured a housing development in Wyoming's Teton County where constituents challenged a pending gas lease sale on nearby forest land. Afterward, he questioned whether the government should allow drilling on most forested areas in the state.
"These neighbors don't want to have a gas well" nearby, Thomas said in an interview. "I understand that." He added that while public land can be used for several purposes, Americans are reacting negatively to the increased drive for energy out West. "With more development taking place, there's more pressure on the land," Thomas said.
Montana's Sen. Burns, who has long backed energy exploration on public land and just added $27 million to the Bureau of Land Management's permitting budget, recently put language in an Interior Department spending bill to block any new federal oil and gas leases on the Rocky Mountain Front. It would permanently retire leases that energy companies donate or sell to conservation groups. His proposal covers 356,000 acres, including a part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in his state that the Blackfeet Indian Nation holds sacred.
In some cases, federal officials are trying to reconcile the administration's support for increased domestic energy production with intense local opposition to exploration.
Carson National Forest officials are working to develop by the end of the summer their first official plan to manage Valle Vidal before they decide whether to allow El Paso to begin exploration, and they received 54,028 public comments in three months. Only nine comments supported drilling for gas, and 51 percent of New Mexico residents who wrote in identified themselves as hunters and anglers.
" 'Leave it like it is' -- that's 95 percent of what we heard," said Kendall Clark, the acting forest supervisor. "We got comments about the natural quiet there. We got comments about the darkness."
El Paso sought the administration's aid in speeding the approval process in 2003, writing to the White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining about the Forest Service's slow pace. The task force's director, Robert W. Middleton, did write to regional officials within a matter of weeks to ask about the process, but Clark and others said they have not been pressured to approve drilling in Valle Vidal.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, said Republicans may be realizing the push for energy exploration on public land carries a political cost, though Thomas said it's more a question of balance.
"The Bush administration's drill, drill, drill philosophy is really upsetting many traditional recreationalists in the West," Richardson said. "This will have political repercussions for the Republican Party in the West, and for Republican candidates."
In some cases energy companies are deciding on their own to abandon plans to drill in environmentally sensitive areas. Questar Corp., a natural gas company, just donated its leases covering 1,500 acres in Montana's Blackleaf area, part of the Rocky Mountain Front, to Trout Unlimited. Questar Executive Vice President Jay B. Neese said the company had tired of the long regulatory process for drilling there and was pursuing more profitable projects. The company is drilling in Wyoming's Upper Green River Valley, home to pronghorn antelope and other important wildlife species, as well as in Colorado, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.
"We pretty much had moved on, and that was not an area we were interested in," Neese said. "It didn't really affect our drilling plan."