An independent oil company has bulldozed into a wilderness refuge in New Mexico and drilled a well, ignoring a congressional ban and setting up the first major post-election confrontation between environmentalists and the Interior Department.
Interior officials said they plan to go to court today to try to block Yates Petroleum Co. of Artesia, N.M., from further drilling. The department's Fish and Wildlife Service charged the company with trespassing last Wednesday, two days after its bulldozers moved across a federal wildlife refuge without a permit.
But the company has continued to drill, ignoring the trespassing charge, and has now developed a one-mile road, erected a large drilling rig and moved about a dozen large heavy machines into the Salt Creek Wilderness in the high, arid plains of the Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge, according to a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service there.
"The fact that the company may have broken the law going in there doesn't give us the right to break the law to get them out. They have a right to due process," said Interior spokesman Douglas Baldwin.
But several environmental groups charged that Interior moved too slowly, sending Yates a "signal" that it could proceed.
"What I want to know is why has this been going on for almost a week and the government hasn't sought an injunction until now?" asked Tim Mahoney of the Sierra Club. "I find it very interesting that this happened just before the election, and nothing was done publicly until the day after Election Day."
Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), a leading congressional advocate of wilderness protection, has scheduled an emergency meeting of his public lands subcommittee to look into the New Mexico drilling.
Meanwhile, five conservationists from New Mexico and Texas camped out in the refuge Sunday night in an attempt to block the development, but said they were forced to disperse when Yates employes drove in on bulldozers yelling: "Go! Get out of the way!"
"We have a tape recording of the whole thing. It was a sudden, dramatic assault," said Wes Leonard, a marketing consultant from El Paso who was among the campers. "We were there legally. They're the trespassers."
A Yates spokesman said the company has been advised by its lawyers not to comment on the incident or on the drilling case.
Interior officials said the issue is intricate because the federal government owns only the surface of the land where Yates is drilling. The state of New Mexico owns the minerals beneath the surface, and had granted Yates a lease to explore there.
But the company was also required to obtain a permit from Interior to cross the refuge, government officials said. Alexander Good, an assistant solicitor in the department, wrote the company on Oct. 25 that the department has "no legal objection" to approving the lease, but could not grant it because Congress banned wilderness leasing in an amendment to the latest stopgap funding resolution.
Environmentalists and two Interior employes who asked not to be named charged that Interior officials quietly gave Yates permission to proceed. But Interior spokesman Harmon Kallman said: "Nobody flashed him any signal. That's why we slapped him with a trespass notice."
The trespass charge carries a $50 fine, an Interior official said.
New Mexico state officials said Yates would have lost its lease had it not begun development by Oct. 31. Peyton Yates, an official of the company, was quoted in a New Mexico paper as saying he believed the congressional ban deprived Yates of its rights.
"All well and good," said the Sierra Club's Mahoney. "But their legal recourse is to go to court, not to go onto that land."