It was the mid-1990s when Las Placitas Association President Carol Parker began scouting for a leader to take over nudging the feds into protecting thousands of acres of public land from mineral mining and oil drilling.
Twenty-five years later, all those nudges from agencies and Congress backed by local persistence, numerous allies, and an alliance with the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ESCA) may finally see a temporary ban on mining at hand. Temporary, in this case, would be 50 years.
“I was recruited by Carol Parker,” Mary-Rose de Vallardes, who currently chairs the ESCA-related Land Protection Trust, told the Signpost. “She literally bombarded me with correspondence and legal documents.”
De Vallardes immersed herself in the workings of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which controls land uses guided by a regional resource management plan (RMP). It took several years working with then-U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici and the state’s congressional delegation to fund a new RMP.
The document was intended to replace a 1986 plan prepared when both the population of Placitas and nearby gravel quarries were expanding.
That’s when de Vallardes met current LPA President Sandy Johnson during a BLM training session for community leaders involved in the years-long RMP process. When the draft RMP came out in 2012, it still generally supported mineral development in Placitas.
“Then we waited,” Johnson said. “The final draft never was released. The BLM changed administrations and people, some moved on, some retired.”
The draft plan generated 50,000 comments across the six-county BLM Rio Puerco Field Office; 17,000 alone came from Placitas with gravel mining being a major issue, she added.
Yet another Buffalo Tract Protection Act permanently withdrawing the Placitas lands from subsurface development remains in limbo with little prospect of passage as long as Republicans try to manage the U.S. House. A similar bill was included in an end-of-session catchall bill last December only to be pulled at the last moment mostly at the behest of one Republican senator.
Meanwhile the BLM, nudged by the LPA, ESCA and the New Mexico congressional delegation, recently proposed the 50-year withdrawal to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Such a temporary ban falls within Haaland’s administrative powers, and posting the proposal to the Federal Register on Sept. 20 instantly imposed a two-year ban on mineral leasing here while the process plays out.
“Today we’re responding to calls from Tribes, elected leaders, and community members who want to see these public lands protected,” Haaland said in a news release. The sponsors of the current Buffalo Tract bill, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Melanie Stansbury, both D-N.M., also praised the withdrawal that would give Congress time to reach a permanent solution.
While the RMP draft gathers dust, the administrative withdrawal shows signs of moving forward.
“I think the state director and current administration look to get this done sooner than later,” Brian Novosak, the Rio Puerco office acting field manager, said.
To that end, the BLM field office is hosting a public meeting at the Placitas Community Library from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Nov. 14. Novosak said he anticipates a background presentation, cards for written questions and a reasonable time limit on spoken comments.
ESCA President George Franzen said his organization is promoting support for the administrative withdrawal.
“The focus needs to be on items that are in the Federal Register: the environment, cultural aspects, recreational values, protecting scenery and wildlife corridor connectivity,” he added. “
The LPA and ESCA have centered their advocacy on residential Placitas being no place for more gravel mining. Residential development generates more in taxes for local government than gravel sales from multiple quarries that are taxed in Albuquerque, according to the group.
The two groups, with growing support from organizations, elected officials and local and tribal governments, also noted effects of mining on air quality, water consumption, disruption of the wildlife corridors, and the cultural ties to the land by Santa Ana and San Felipe pueblos and the Placitas land grant.
“This is bigger than gravel; it’s all four parcels,” Joan Fenicle, a past LPA president, said. “The Crest of Montezuma is the only undeveloped land on the north side of the Sandias connecting to the Jemez Mountains and the Galisteo Basin.
“It’s essential to our wildlife corridors.”
A recognized corridor also runs from the Sandias through Placitas and the Buffalo Tract to the Jemez and beyond. The Crest of Montezuma, topping out at 7,600 feet elevation, abuts the Cibola National Forest and defines the eastern boundary of Placitas.
The other parcels are about 200 acres popular with hikers in central Placitas bounded by Overlook, Cedar Creek and other developments, and 75 acres adjoining San Felipe Pueblo in northern Placitas.
The public comment period continues until Dec. 19. Comments for or against the withdrawal can be mailed to the BLM Rio Puerco Field Office, Attn: Placitas Withdrawal, 100 Sun Ave. NE, Suite 330, Albuquerque NM 87109.
Comments also can be emailed with the subject line Placitas Withdrawal Comment to BLM planner Laura Gray at LGray@blm.gov.