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Opponents of coal bed methane gas drilling in the Valle Vidal got a huge boost July 24 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3817, “The Valle Vidal Protection Act of 2005.” The bill, introduced last September by Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), exempts the Valle Vidal from various provisions of federal law that would permit drilling and mining operations on that portion of the Carson National Forest. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration by that body.

The House Resources Committee approved the bill unanimously on June 21 after another friend of Philmont, Rep. Heather Wilson (R.-N.M.), agreed to cosponsor it. It was scheduled to come to the House floor for debate on the afternoon of July 24, with a recorded vote to be taken later that evening. However, after debate concluded, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), an Eagle Scout, moved that the rules be suspended and that the bill be passed by voice vote. It was!

The El Paso Corporation, which is currently drilling for coal bed methane gas on the Vermejo Park Ranch north of the Valle Vidal, has applied to the Forest Service to open the eastern 40,000 acres of the Valle for gas exploration. Before that request can be considered, Carson National Forest officials must amend their Forest Plan to include management objectives for the Valle, which was never formally added to the plan after being donated to the public in 1982. The Forest Service is expected to release its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Forest Plan Amendment in September. Once the plan amendment is approved, the service will begin consideration of El Paso’s request, a process that will take a couple of years.

The Philmont Staff Association has adopted a formal position opposing the opening of the Valle Vidal to oil and gas drilling. Over the past two years, we have been working diligently (sometimes visibly, sometimes not) to preserve this beautiful resource as a vital part of the Philmont experience. Some of our efforts to date:

  • The PSA submitted a formal position statement to the Forest Service endorsing most of the proposed forest plan amendment for the Valle, but opposing drilling activities there. We maintain contact with Carson officials and will continue to play a role in this process.
  • The PSA initiated a campaign among its members and Scouters from around the country to submit comments to the Forest Service on the proposed forest plan amendment. A fair number of the more than 54,000 comments submitted came from PSA members and friends of Philmont.
  • The PSA supported an initiative by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to have all of the waters in the Valle Vidal designated as “Outstanding Natural Resource Waters,” which would afford them protection from any degradation in water quality. When members of the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission sat down last December for their public hearing on this proposal, the top item on their stack of materials was a position statement from the PSA.
  • The undersigned chair of the PSA’s Valle Vidal Task Force met in Washington with Congressman Udall and his legislative aide to express our support for his bill and make them aware of our position on the issue. Our endorsement has since been used to secure support from other House members for this bill. PSA members have also worked to let their own Congressional representatives know of our support for this measure.
  • The association’s president, Ed Pease, a former Congressional representative, worked extensively behind the scenes last week with other members of the House to get Udall’s bill to a floor vote.
  • The PSA has established its own Valle Vidal Task Force to work on several fronts to prevent coal bed methane drilling. Our task force members have expertise in law, government, environmental issues, energy, oil field engineering, and range management, as well as connections to local and national government and, importantly, current Philmont staff (one of our members is Randa Celley, current Philmont camp director). We have a team of experts ready to analyze and comment on the Forest Service’s Draft EIS for the forest plan amendment when it comes out this fall.

And our efforts are definitely being noticed and making a difference. The Washington Post reported in a front-page story on July 25, the day after the Valle Vidal bill’s passage, that “in the case of the Valle Vidal, two of the groups fighting hardest to preserve it are hunters, who vie for a once-in-a-lifetime permit to shoot elk here, and devotees of the Philmont Scout Ranch, which is next to the Valle Vidal and brings 3,000 Boy Scouts to hike there each year.”

Perhaps the most telling tribute to the value of our organization’s position comes in the statement Rep. Udall made on the House floor during debate on his bill: “The Valle Vidal is also a unique place for the Boy Scouts of America who have for decades come from all over the country to the adjacent Philmont Scout Ranch, the national high adventure base of the Boy Scouts of America. That is why the Philmont Staff Association, a non-profit organization of more than 2,200 current and former members of the staff of the Ranch, has publicly stated that the Valle Vidal should be maintained as a wilderness experience, free from the impact of coal bed methane development.”

The passage of Udall’s bill by the House of Representatives is a major step forward for preservation of the Valle Vidal, but it is only one step. The PSA’s Valle Vidal Task Force will continue at work in the weeks ahead to push for passage of the Udall bill in the Senate, and to review and respond to the Forest Service’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement for its proposed forest plan amendment for the Valle Vidal, now expected in September.

—Mark Stinnett & Charles Bayless
PSA Valle Vidal Task Force Co-Chairs

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