I had the good sense to grow up in New Mexico and the bad fortune to leave before I wanted to. Consequently, the faintest whiff of piñon smoke provokes intense spasms of nostalgia. But returning to the state last fall after many decades' absence, I felt like Rip van Winkle.
The plain east of Albuquerque running up to the Sandias, where I once stalked horned toads and prairie dogs, is now covered by subdivisions. The old adobe our family rented in Santa Fe is owned by a retired starlet. Taos boasts a Wal-Mart, and is threatened by a Wal-Mart Supercenter. And on the highway north of the capital, I sat in a traffic jam in once-sleepy Espaola, behind a pickup that was hauling an elk head with the largest rack of horns I had ever seen.
Some things haven't changed in New Mexico: Elk hunting is still a big deal, and not just for those seeking a trophy to hang on the wall. Lots of families in the impoverished north of the state count on a freezerful of elk steaks and sausages, and when the season opens in October, many New Mexicans load up the pickup and head for the hills.
And so I find myself in a hunting camp with Oscar Simpson, the lean and scrappy president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, in the middle of the Valle Vidal, home to some 2,000 elk, the largest herd in the state. The 100,000-acre "Valley of Life" is a high mountain basin in Carson National Forest, just south of the Colorado border, ranging from 8,000 to more than 12,000 feet. Its huge open meadows are ringed by ponderosa pine, luminous stands of aspen and cottonwood, and the rocky peaks of the Sangre de Cristo, which tower above the nation's second-largest bristlecone pine forest and streams sheltering rare Rio Grande cutthroat trout.
The combination is a paradise for elk — Simpson tells of visiting in the spring and encountering two herds of more than 300. The hunting is legendary, and closely protected: Hunters compete in an annual lottery for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Simpson hasn't drawn a lucky tag. Instead, he is bearing news of impending doom to the assembled huntsmen like an Old Testament prophet. We set out on horseback in the crisp fall air, following McCrystal Creek up to where it runs out of Whitman Vega, the large meadow at the heart of the elks' winter range. There we find two out-of-shape hunters — cousins from nearby Peasco — resting on the ruins of an early homesteader's wagon, idly hoping that someone else will flush an elk from the highlands into the open. After exchanging sportsmanlike pleasantries, Simpson cuts to the chase:
"You know they want to drill this whole area for coalbed methane, don't you?"
They did not, so Simpson fills them in: Houston-based energy giant El Paso Corporation is seeking to drill for natural gas on 40,000 acres of the Valle Vidal, including Whitman Vega, where we now stand. At first, wells on three-acre drill pads would likely be spaced every 160 acres, each with its attendant network of pipes, power lines, storage tanks, roads, and compressor stations. Once extraction began, however, the company would likely put intense pressure on federal and state officials to go down to 80-acre spacing, and eventually down to 40. If fully developed, the area would provide the country with, at most, 30 hours of natural gas.
with, at most, 30 hours of natural gas.
Coalbed methane is simply natural gas trapped in coal seams. Its presence under the area is not much in doubt. Hundreds of wells are producing throughout the surrounding 2.5-million-acre Raton Basin, and El Paso is already pumping as fast as it can from Ted Turner's neighboring Vermejo Park Ranch, just over the ridge to the east. (When Turner bought his 588,000-acre ranch in 1996, making him the second-largest landowner in New Mexico, he didn't purchase the subsurface rights, and thus couldn't refuse El Paso permission to drill. He has, however, been able to impose relatively stringent restrictions on the drilling. Even so, driving into the Valle Vidal from the east along the dirt road shared by Vermejo Park, I had to dodge more than a dozen trucks from Dick Cheney's old energy-services company Halliburton, barreling toward the highway.)
Simpson doesn't have to spell out the consequences for the local hunters. "A little money makes people crazy," sighs Luis Sanchez, cradling his rifle. "You let 'em drill in here, and all the elk are gone."