Sixty million years ago, New Mexico’s San Juan Basin east of Nageezi was a tropical forest with magnolias and fig trees. The rivers were full of fish, and mammals roamed the dry lands. Ash spewing out of nearby volcanoes spread over the land, laying down a layer of slippery black clay.

When the Rocky Mountains began rising, the uplift set off erosion that washed away the layers of sand and sediment built up over millions of years, eventually creating the distinctive, softly rounded gray formations on either side of N.M. 550 west of the Continental Divide that American artist Georgia O’Keeffe called the “Black Place” and compared to a “mile of elephants.”

The oxidation of the iron and manganese in the ash gives the hills their gray-black color. The white bands are remains of ancient riverbeds.

O’Keeffe was introduced to the dramatic landscape in the 1930s and made many arduous 100-mile road trips there from her home in Abiquiú. She set up camp, sometimes with her friend and assistant, Maria Chabot, and with photographer Eliot Porter. By then, the area was arid windy, inhospitable. There was little vegetation below the mesa top. The surface of the gray hills was cracked and lumpy, a texture known as “popcorn.” When the sun beat down too hard, she would crawl under her car.

But here O’Keeffe did dozens of drawings, pastels and some of her most well-known oil paintings, including Black Place II, which is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She made her last visit to the Black Place when she was nearly 90 years old and her eyesight was failing.

Today, the landscape that inspired O’Keeffe is dramatically changed. And some say threatened.

Located on federal land a mile or so from the turnoff to Chaco Canyon, the Black Place is surrounded by evidence of the world’s energy needs: oil rigs, pipelines, storage pads everywhere. A little farther down the road is a gas plant.

Although the Black Place itself is still untouched, dozens of tanks for water, oil and fracking chemicals lie 500 yards from the site. Big trucks emblazoned with names like Halliburton ply the maze of rutted roads around it, kicking up huge clouds of dust. And a flare stack is visible from the sage-dotted mesa above the formation.

For some O’Keeffe fans and environmentalists, the 21st-century changes are most unwelcome, and they are calling for the immediate area to be preserved.

Walter Nelson, a photographer who has been visiting these badlands for three decades and recently published a book called The Black Place: Two Seasons, calls it a “sacred, spiritual” place that “should be protected.”

Going to the Black Place now makes him sad. “It’s all about big money,” he said, and the drilling is “kind of out of hand.”

While he is not suggesting that drilling can, or should, be banned in the area, he would like to see 75 or 100 acres surrounding the Black Place turned into some kind of landmark, with limited access and a prohibition on new roads as well as drilling and mining operations.

Others with strong attachments to landscapes of Northern New Mexico also are warning that one of the most iconic views in the state could be irreparably damaged if no action to protect them is taken.

Douglas Preston, author of an essay that accompanies Nelson’s photographs in The Black Place: Two Seasons, said, “Of all the places Georgia O’Keeffe painted, the Black Place may be the most significant. She painted some of her greatest paintings here — in truth, some of the greatest landscape paintings ever done by an American artist.

“I hope that these beautiful and lonely hills can be preserved, not just for O’Keeffe’s legacy, but also for the sake of New Mexico, our history and our future. The Black Place lies on public land — our land — and it would be a tragedy if it was thoughtlessly destroyed for the sake of a few more barrels of oil.”

‘Let’s be sensible’

Both Nelson and Preston have an affinity for remote places. Together they retraced Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s 1,000-mile quest to find the “Seven Cities of Gold” on horseback in 1989. They said they would like to see the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum take a lead in finding a way to save the Black Place.

Robert Kret, the museum’s director, said he learned about what is happening there from a staff member at the O’Keeffe house in Abiquiú, but is not sure if there is a role for the museum in protecting it.

“Our focus is preserving the artistic legacy. We have to be mindful about what’s reasonable for us to take on,” Kret said.

He pointed out that there are many other places in Northern New Mexico, such as Ghost Ranch, that are also associated with the artist and, “The ability any one organization [has] to save every location that O’Keeffe painted is impossible.”

Nor is this the first time someone has proposed preserving a site where O’Keeffe worked. During his second week on the job in 2009, he said, someone offered to sell the museum land along the Chama River where she painted the cottonwoods.

Kret said, however, that he has had a preliminary discussion with State Historic Preservation Officer and Director Jeff Pappas about the Black Place, and another meeting is planned. Kret said they talked about “how unique New Mexico is in terms of all viewsheds documented by artists through the 20th century.”

In fact, in 2004, the museum presented a show — Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place — which featured contemporary photographs taken at locations where she set up her easel.

And in 2012-13, the museum exhibited some of the camping gear bequeathed to it by Chabot in a show titled Georgia O’Keeffe and the Faraway: Nature and Image.

Pappas said Wednesday that it was too early to say what could be done to protect the Black Place, nor had he talked to the Bureau of Land Management, which handles the leases in the region.

Rebekah Henty, a member of Rio Arriba Concerned Citizens, an environmental group seeking to protect the Rio Chama watershed and block oil and gas development east of the Continental Divide, also has taken up the cause of the Black Place. “When we heard about it, we were so horrified that we decided to expand our efforts to include the Black Place,” she said. “As New Mexicans, we’re concerned that this is happening. A place like that needs extra jurisdiction.”

She warned that development in such fragile areas “needs to be wise and sustainable, otherwise we are just digging up things that bring massive amounts of tourists to New Mexico.

“There are plenty of other places to frack, just not the watershed and not the O’Keeffe Black Place. We need to protect some of the things that are unique,” she said.

“Of course we need oil, of course we need revenue. But let’s be sensible.”

The checkerboard

Not many people could find the Black Place. There’s no sign leading there. The area is a checkerboard of tribal lands, Navajo allotted leases, sections managed by the State Land Office, as well as BLM lands.

Companies have been drilling in the San Juan Basin at least since the 1950s, mostly for gas, but the main play now is for oil.

The Farmington Field Office oversees 1.3 million acres of minerals on BLM land and another 3.6 million acres of split estate, where the surface land is owned by another entity.

Much of it is leased to drilling companies using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to release oil from the Mancos Shale Formation.

Federal leases allow them to explore and drill for, extract, remove and dispose of oil and gas deposits they find on their lease. The leases normally expire after 10 years but may be extended if qualifying drilling is in progress.

Dave Mankiewicz, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Farmington Field Office, said the area is 100-percent leased, and there are at least a dozen oil wells within three miles of the highway near the Black Place that have been or will be drilled in the next year. There are another dozen north of N.M. 550 within that radius.

But oil companies “can’t just put a well spot wherever they want,” Mankiewicz said. Consideration must be paid to environmental implications. “That’s our mantra,” he said.

The two biggest leaseholders in the area are Tulsa, Okla.-based WPX Energy and the Canadian company Encana.

WPX, which has 160,000 net acres under lease in the San Juan Basin, plans to triple its oil volumes this year in the area, according to its website. It plans to invest about $160 million to further develop its Gallup sandstone oil discovery in the San Juan Basin, which will fund the drilling of 29 wells. Last year, it drilled 15 oil wells that produced 290,000 barrels. It estimates royalties on its wells on federal, state and Indian lands in 2013 at $18.4 million.

Encana estimates drilling between 45 and 50 net wells in 2014 in the San Juan Basin, according to its website. It has leases on 175,000 acres in the area.

Environmental groups have raised concerns about the impact of fracking on water, air and human health, as well as on cultural resources such as the Chaco Canyon ruins, although the threat to the Black Place hasn’t previously been raised.

But, “The BLM is trying to lease everything out there,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “The whole area is chock full of fascinating geology, badlands, traditional cultural properties, but it all gets pushed aside for the oil and gas guys.”

Drilling is not allowed within the Chaco Culture National Historical Park but, “The State Land Office and the BLM are trying to lease everything to the border,” Eisenfeld said.

While the Black Place hasn’t surfaced on the group’s radar, he said it could be “another example of an amazing historic thing that could be compromised unless action is taken. … There are some places where we just don’t need oil and gas drilling. The BLM really needs to slow down. We’re losing our heritage, and this is another example.”

‘The power behind these images’

The arroyo leading to the Black Place from an oil and gas production storage area south of N.M. 550 is littered with petrified wood and jasper, a rock formed from red clay — as well as some errant plastic bags and bottles.

Nelson said it took him years to find the exact spot. But when he did, there was no mistaking it. He even found the rock where O’Keeffe posed for Chabot at the foot of where she painted Black Place II. And the area where she camped so that she could be there for sunrises and sunsets.

A sculptor and painter, he likes walking in the footsteps of artists he admires and seeing what they saw. He’s been taking black and white photographs in the area since 1983, when he moved from New York.

“I just kept going back and back and back. That’s the power behind these images,” he said. “When I went up there and ‘saw’ her painting I was overjoyed, mesmerized.”

The place still has a mystical feeling to it, he said. The landscape “gives herself to you. You can’t be in a rush.”

Nelson, who tried unsuccessfully to meet the artist on a couple of occasions, gestured toward the spot immediately recognizable from O’Keeffe’s painting and said, “All this black needs to be preserved.”

But he’s not necessarily confident that will happen.

About five weeks ago, Nelson started a painting he is calling The Death of the Black Place, which depicts a blue sky, the gray hills, a red “love” heart with a human heart set inside that is pierced by stakes representing drilling and “the pain being inflicted on the Black Place.”

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.