Two federal agencies committed their support Wednesday of a bill brought by the New Mexico Congressional delegation to ban mining development in nearly 163,000 acres of federal land in the Upper Pecos watershed.
Most of the land – 161,162 acres proposed for withdrawal – is owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service in the Santa Fe National Forest surrounding the town of Pecos. Another 1,600 acres have mineral rights managed by the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management. It would also designate another 11,599 acres as part of the Thompson Peak Wilderness Area.
Deputy secretaries from both agencies gave their written support for U.S. Senate Bill 3033 at Wednesday’s Public Lands, Forests and Mining subcommittee hearing.
In her opening remarks, Principal Deputy Director Nada Wolff Culver said the withdrawal and protection of Pecos wilderness would align with “the administration’s conservation and environmental justice goals.”
Wolff Culver’s position marks a change from the previous administration, when Bureau of Land Management officials testified against the bill.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) noted the area’s farmers, ranchers, hunters and nearby Pueblos are “united by their reliance” on the Pecos river and the forested watershed.
“The last thing this area needs is new mines that would pose a threat to the Pecos River itself,” Heinrich said. Local governments including Jemez Pueblo, Tesuque Pueblo, San Miguel and Santa Fe counties and the Village of Pecos, have written letters or passed resolutions supporting the effort.
This is the third time Heinrich has introduced the bill. He’s joined this session by co-sponsor Sen. Ben Ray Luján. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández put forward an identical bill in the House.
Old wounds, new threats
The region has a history. The Terrero Mine and its mill operated between 1927 and 1939 on the Pecos River, pulling mostly zinc and lead, but also copper, silver and gold from the mountains.
The mine’s most devastating spill came 50 years after its closure. Floods from heavy snowmelt in 1991 sent tailings with sulfuric acid and metals downriver. The spill buried Willow creek in sludge and killed tens of thousands of fish in the Pecos River and Lisboa Springs hatchery. The event pushed federal officials to declare it a Superfund site.
Cleanup has taken decades and cost tens of millions of dollars. The state was still paying $80,000 per year in 2019-2022 according to a New Mexico Environment Department presentation.
In 2019, mining company Comexico LLC, which is owned by Australian company New World Cobalt, announced a proposal for “exploratory drilling” in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This would include the old Terrero mine operation and nearby deposits. New World Cobalt told its investors in April 2019 that mineral potential in New Mexico was “an outstanding opportunity” to develop on adjacent potentially gold-rich deposits.
New World Cobalt officials called the Terrero acquisition a “potential game-changer” that represented “unrivaled new growth and development opportunity.”
Even if withdrawn, the land would still be subject to existing rights. In its written comment, the U.S. Forest Service noted that “mean[s] mining and other associated activities can continue within the withdrawn area as long as valid rights were established at or before the withdrawal and remain valid.”
The Stop Terrero Mine Coalition – which includes diverse groups from agriculture, local and tribal governments, conservation and hunting groups – said this year they are concerned Comexico has more than 230 mining claims in the greater Pecos headwaters.
The Terrero project has not received any permits, yet. The process has largely stopped, waiting on federal agencies to issue their reports on the proposals.
The U.S. Forest Service has not issued an environmental assessment, said Sidney Hill, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Energy Minerals Natural Resources Department.
“Once the report is released, [the Minerals and Mining Division] can proceed with its technical review of the project and schedule its public hearing,” Hill wrote in an email.
In June, the New Mexico delegation sent a letter to both agencies to temporarily limit activities – such as hard-rock mining – in the Upper Pecos watershed.
In a response letter, Forest Chief Randy Moore said the agency was “evaluating the potential risk of mineral development in the Upper Pecos Watershed and whether our current laws and regulations are adequate for its protection.”
Map – Pecos Watershed Protection Act