Amid the beauty near Indian Creek in the mountains around Pecos there are scars — blast holes, remnants of a mining past thought to be dead and buried. Green shoots poke out from those holes, formed when prospectors were seeking ore, bringing life back to the once-dormant Earth.
This was the past. Now, the people of Pecos are wondering if mining once again will be part of their present.
A foreign company with a subsidiary in Colorado has filed notice with the U.S. Forest Service that it plans to conduct exploratory drilling around the Jones Hill and Macho Canyon areas, potentially impacting watersheds, the soil and the wild creatures that make the forest their homes. The company is searching for copper, gold and zinc.
This is no small endeavor. Comexico LLC, a Colorado subsidiary of Australian mining company New World Cobalt Ltd., has secured the rights to 20 federal mining claims on 400 acres in the Pecos Ranger District, as well as another 4,300 acres of surrounding national forest.
Under the 1872 Mining Act, the Forest Service believes it can do little to stop mining on public lands. This archaic law places the wants of for-profit companies over the actual needs of the people most impacted by mining. It also gives away public assets for a song.
Despite the limits of the current law — U.S. Sen. Tom Udall is helping lead a much-needed charge to update it — the Forest Service can, and should, demand the most stringent environmental and cultural reviews possible. State permits are required, too, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham can stand firm to protect the villagers and this incredible recreational area. There is much that can be done to stall, if not stop, this effort from going forward.
Meanwhile, as is their habit, the people of Pecos are joining together to fight the mine.
And that makes sense. These people live with the legacy of past mining efforts. The old Terrero mine site has cost $28 million to clean up, with New Mexico taxpayers helping foot the bill. Yet damage still remains. For Pecos residents, there is the memory of a thunderstorm that, when combined with heavy snowmelt back in 1991, sent toxic mine metals into the Pecos River, killing nearly 10,000 rainbow trout at a downstream fish hatchery.
The village economy depends on outdoor enthusiasts who visit the area to fish, camp and hike, and longtime residents who still grow beans, squash and other heirloom crops. They believe — with good reason — that a return to mining could damage their livelihoods.
There are environmental concerns, apart from what happens to humans. The area targeted for mining is rich in wildlife, plants and headwaters for four separate watersheds.
On a recent walk to the proposed drilling sites, turkeys flit in and out of sight, various butterflies species alight and the rustling of smaller creatures can be heard in the grasses. Rio Grande cutthroat trout live in the streams; there are spotted owls nesting and even a singular plant, the federally endangered Ipomopsis sancti-spiritus, commonly called the Holy Ghost ipomopsis. This flowering plant, from the phlox family, is found only in Holy Ghost Canyon in the Santa Fe National Forest. Such rarity is precious, worth saving.
No wonder Pecos residents are up in arms. Earlier this month, village residents and interested observers gathered to discuss their strategies for fighting the mine. They passed out stickers — No Tererro (the local spelling) Mine — and promised that they would prevail. This is a coalition not often seen in New Mexico, reminiscent of one formed to fight — successfully — a planned highway over Elk Mountain from Pecos to Las Vegas some 50 years ago.
Once more, we see united local Hispano villagers, environmentalists, members of Pueblo tribes who don’t want mining near important sacred sites, outdoor enthusiasts who make a living by sharing the beauty of their surroundings with others — all determined that mining belongs in the past.
New Mexico state officials — from the governor down to Cabinet-level secretaries and the employees who deal with permits for mining and who oversee groundwater quality — must stand behind the people of Pecos to stop mining in the area.
These villagers have lived with the fallout from mining since the first prospectors wandered through the canyons looking for gold or silver back in the 19th century. They have watched the booms and lived through the busts. When the mining stopped, they were left to cope with the toxic mess, effects of which still linger.
Mining is the past. It does not need to become our present.