Valle Vidal

Northern New Mexico’s Living Legacy

Throughout the West, special places – enchantingly beautiful, priceless, and awe-inspiring – bring communities together. Imagine your favorite haven now: an ancient forest in the Northwest, a sweeping ridgeline vista in the Intermountain West, or a breathtaking desert canyon in the Southwest. Many of these lands are public lands owned by all of us, and at the root of our country’s democratic traditions.

Valle Vidal

Northern New Mexico’s Living Legacy

Throughout the West, special places – enchantingly beautiful, priceless, and awe-inspiring – bring communities together. Imagine your favorite haven now: an ancient forest in the Northwest, a sweeping ridgeline vista in the Intermountain West, or a breathtaking desert canyon in the Southwest. Many of these lands are public lands owned by all of us, and at the root of our country’s democratic traditions.

Valle Vidal

Northern New Mexico’s Living Legacy

Throughout the West, special places – enchantingly beautiful, priceless, and awe-inspiring – bring communities together. Imagine your favorite haven now: an ancient forest in the Northwest, a sweeping ridgeline vista in the Intermountain West, or a breathtaking desert canyon in the Southwest. Many of these lands are public lands owned by all of us, and at the root of our country’s democratic traditions.

Throughout the West, special places – enchantingly beautiful, priceless, and awe-inspiring – bring communities together. Imagine your favorite haven now: an ancient forest in the Northwest, a sweeping ridgeline vista in the Intermountain West, or a breathtaking desert canyon in the Southwest. Many of these lands are public lands owned by all of us, and at the root of our country’s democratic traditions.

As westerners with home bases in New Mexico, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, we know our public lands well. Indeed, our public lands provide us with inspiration each and every day as we wield the full power of the law to safeguard the West’s wildlands, wildlife, and communities. So when a special place comes under threat, we step in to defend it. That’s precisely what happened a decade ago when the fossil fuel industry sought to lease and drill Northern New Mexico’s beloved Valle Vidal, the “Valley of Life,” for oil and gas.

Valle Vidal
Valle Vidal grasses
Valle Vidal
Valle Vidal stream and butte

ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK

A 100,000-acre paradise of rolling alpine meadows, aspen groves, high peaks, and forest in the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Valle Vidal – part of the Carson National Forest – rests atop fossil resources that were hungrily eyed by a Texas oil and gas company. In 2003, rumors swept through northern New Mexico that this company had reached out to President George W. Bush’s Energy Task Force, chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney, to exploit the Valle Vidal.

Valle Vidal Green Hill
Valle Vidal Architecture
Valle Vidal
Valle Vidal
Valle Vidal

Given the Bush Administration’s coziness with the oil and gas industry, we were told that drilling in the Valle Vidal was inevitable and that we should try to cut a deal to protect what we could. But, with partners such as our good friends at Amigos Bravos, we talked with the community and received a crystal clear signal: these public lands weren’t for sale. The community’s determination in the face of seemingly impossible odds sparked an amazing, multi-year, community-based campaign. The result: Permanent legislative protection of the Valle Vidal from the threat of oil and gas drilling.

We tell this story now for a simple reason: we’ve fought hostile administrations in the past, we know how to win, and we’re prepared, now, to stand with you and other Westerners to fight the Trump administration.
Valle Vidal
Valle Vidal

CORNERSTONES OF THE CAMPAIGN

The Valle Vidal campaign was grounded in several key principles.

First, know your community. We hired two excellent organizers – Jim O’Donnell and Oscar Simpson – to reach out and talk with county and town officials, local ranchers and businesses, sportsmen, boy scouts, and others. And in these conversations, we found common ground: a shared love of the Valle Vidal and the lands watershed, wildlife, recreational, and ranching values. It was this common ground that defined the community’s horror at the prospect of an oil and gas company turning the Valle Vidal into an industrial landscape for the sake of fossil fuel energy that would power the country for a measly 30 hours. Without knowing your community, you risk failure. With community, anything – including the ability to draw a clear, bold line in the sand even in the face of pressure to “cut a deal” – is possible.

 

Valle Vidal flowers
Valle Vidal Big Sky

BUILD A COALITION

Second, build a coalition. It isn’t always the most exciting element of advocacy campaigns, but designing a well-functioning coalition is essential to effective coordination and decision making. It allows you to secure resources for organizers, for education and outreach to media and political champions, for scientific and technical experts, and to integrate and harmonize different advocacy strategies. With the Valle Vidal campaign, we relied on a solid group of passionate, exceptional leaders to raise necessary funding and to help navigate the coalition through very complex community, legal, and political dynamics. Building off the community’s core values, the coalition enjoyed the support of more than 400 organizations, businesses, and local governments as well as an astounding 70,000 individuals.

Valle Vidal Aspens and Mountain
Valle Vidal Red Flower
Valle Vidal Stream
Valle Vidal Fertile Stripe

WORK THE PROCESS

Third, work the process. Thomas Edison is credited with coining the phrase “vision without execution is hallucination.” Given the odds, we knew that our desire to protect the Valle Vidal, however strong, wasn’t enough; we needed a thoughtful, strategic campaign. We countered the political pressure emanating from the White House not only with the raw power of our coalition, but with savvy, orchestrated use of the law. We used Freedom of Information Act requests to tease out the role of the White House and its conversations with El Paso Corporation. We leveraged bedrock laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act to make sure the Forest Service did not do the White House’s bidding, but rather talked to the public, took a hard look at impacts, and considered community-based alternatives. We creatively used the law to secure watershed protections from New Mexico’s primary water quality regulator, the Water Quality Control Commission, which the Bush Administration had no authority over and could be used to fight back against the prospects of oil and gas drilling. Finally, we understood that for us to truly win, litigation – while a key tool we would not hesitate to use if appropriate – would not carry the day; we needed federal legislation that permanently protected the Valle Vidal.

Valle Vidal One Tree Hill
Valle Vidal Landscape

HAVE PATIENCE

Fourth, have patience. Campaigns are difficult and long, taking years of intense work to cultivate community and political support, to participate in agency planning and environmental review processes, to elevate the profile of an issue, and to introduce and ultimately pass legislation. Given this reality, patience is a virtue, allowing you to remain vigilant over time, to not panic, and to calibrate advocacy strategies such that time is your friend. With the Valle Vidal, serious advocacy began in 2003 but our conclusive victory – legislation – wasn’t secured until the close of 2006. In fact, securing public lands legislation for the Valle Vidal, in under four years from start to finish, was lightning fast. Patience also helps you make good decisions and to take advantage of shifts in the broader political climate. With the Valle Vidal campaign, we took advantage of the 2006 mid-term elections to put pressure on the entire New Mexico congressional delegation at a time when opposition to the Bush administration’s attacks on our public lands was intensifying. And by having the patience to take advantage of those swirling political dynamics, we secured the unanimous support of our entire congressional delegation – Democrats and Republicans – that allowed our legislation to move through Congress without a single vote in opposition and to then be signed, perhaps ironically, by President Bush himself.

NEVER GIVE UP

We think the story of the Valle Vidal Campaign is helpful as we find ourselves facing the Trump Administration, which has moved aggressively to install pro-fossil fuel decision-makers in positions of power and to dismantle our bedrock conservation laws and policies essential to the protection of our public lands. We’ve faced similar threats in the past. To be clear, we do believe the Trump Administration presents new challenges, including to the very fabric of our democracy. But regardless of those challenges, we know that wielding the full power of the law hand-in-glove with communities is a tried-and-true strategy.

The Valle Vidal was protected despite a hostile presidential administration and House of Representatives. That protection will last forever. At the Western Environmental Law Center, we know we will outlast the current administration and with every ounce of energy we possess, we will resist the administration’s attacks and continue our steady, strategic advocacy to secure lasting, durable protections for the West’s wildlands, wildlife, and communities. Together, we are strong; we are unified; and we will prevail.

Valle Vidal Vertical Landscape 1
Valle Vidal Wooded Slope

 

 

Many thanks to Jim O’Donnell, whose photos appear here, and who proved instrumental in securing protections for the Valle Vidal.