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Rick Smith and Cherry Payne, Coalition to Protect America’s Parks
Published Carlsbad Current-Argus May 14, 2020

Each year, over 450,000 people visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park to marvel at otherworldly cave formations and the flying rivers of Mexican free-tail bats departing each evening for their nightly meal. The park is recognized as a national treasure and enjoys international recognition as a World Heritage Site. And on May 14th this year, this incredible park turned 90 years old.

Carlsbad Caverns is a park that keeps on giving: in 2018, park visitors spent an estimated $30.2 million in local gateway regions in order to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park. These expenditures supported a total of 405 jobs, $11 million in labor income, $18.6 million in value added, and $34 million in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding the park. Statewide, New Mexico’s national parks contributed over $123 million to our state’s economy in 2018.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the park has been closed. And justifiably so. It is not safe for visitors or National Park Service (NPS) employees and volunteers to be in close contact as they navigate the caves. And most New Mexicans are staying close to home, looking after their families and their health.

Yet it is business as usual for energy executives as they push for more and more leasing of New Mexico’s public lands for oil and gas drilling. In recent years we have seen an unprecedented “giveaway” to oil and gas corporations at taxpayer expense, and these long-term leases show no signs of stopping, even during the Coronavirus pandemic. This ongoing effort hits especially close to home in New Mexico, where public land lease sales on the doorstep of Carlsbad Caverns are still scheduled to move forward.

A lease sale in August will put lands within 10 miles of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in danger from oil and gas drilling despite a current glut in oil stores. This jeopardizes not only animal migration and critical species habitat; it puts the irreplaceable natural and cultural resources at Carlsbad Caverns itself at risk. Oil and gas development can harm the caves at Carlsbad. Lechuguilla Cave, for example, is one of the four longest caves in the United States. It lies close to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and according to the NPS, “oil and gas drilling on BLM-managed areas could leak gas or fluids into the cave’s passages, killing cave life, destroying the fragile ecosystem and threatening the safety of people inside the cave.”

Thanks in part to our national parks, New Mexico is a thriving destination hub for tourists from all over the world who are drawn to our stunning scenery, dark night skies, and fantastic outdoor recreational opportunities and cultural experiences. But the impacts of oil and gas drilling can be devastating and irreversible to the resources these parks have been established to protect.

We have spent a combined total of over 70 years with the NPS, helping to protect irreplaceable resources across the country, including sites in New Mexico. We feel strongly about the need to protect our parks so that our children and grandchildren will be able to be awed by the same experiences that we currently enjoy.

Leasing public land for oil and gas drilling near our national parks is never okay, but continuing to hold lease sales during a pandemic is completely unacceptable. Proposed sales of these public land leases include the requirement for a public comment period which provides everyone an opportunity to express their opinions.

These comment periods have always been valuable in drawing attention to the potential risks to local communities and surrounding lands. With public land lease sales continuing through the Covid-19 pandemic, the suggestion that groups and individual members of the public will be able to participate in this public process is absurd — the focus of Americans is understandably on the health and safety of our families and friends.

If the Department of the Interior and oil lobbyist-cum-Secretary David Bernhardt truly respect the public’s right to have a say in how public land is used, then BLM should be instructed to halt oil and gas lease sales until a time when the American public is able to truly assess the impacts and fully participate in the process.

Let’s give Carlsbad Caverns the birthday gift it deserves and ensure its continued protection for future generations.