Otero Mesa: Search for Rare Earth Threatens a Desert Bio-Gem

An essential mineral ingredient used in a variety of electronics from cell phones to smart bombs could be a death knell for a pristine part of a wild New Mexico desert grassland coveted by environmentalists -- and considered sacred to Native Americans.

That ingredient -- rare earth elements—is at the heart of a recent battle to protect one of the crown jewels of the southwest, the Otero Mesa, a unique desert environment that sits atop one of the largest untapped fresh water aquifers in the state.  

Check out this beautifully shot video from NRDC's Journey OnEarth producer Roshini Thinakaran and cameraman/editor Zackary Wenning as they explore the fight over protecting the Otero Mesa.  

The Otero Mesa is home to coyote, wolves, black-tailed prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope and endangered songbirds. It’s a remote grasslands area that was the subject of an intense fight to protect the area from oil and gas industry development during the George W. Bush Administration.

But now hard rock mining has come knocking on the Otero Mesa, driven by the burgeoning high-tech global demand for rare earth minerals widely used in electronics and new technologies. One company, Geovic Mining, is expected to start surveying operations this summer along the tallest peak in the area, Wind Mountain.

Initial government surveys suggest the concentration of rare earth minerals is low compared to other areas being mined. According to the data available now, NRDC geologist Briana Mordick says it would take 10,000 grams of rock to get just 2-7 grams of rare earth elements Numbers like that, locals say, could threaten the entire mountain with destruction and create a massive waste disposal problem. 

But it’s not just the destruction of this desert landscape, sensitive animal habitat and groundwater supplies that worries locals.  Native American petroglyphs also were carved into the rock of Wind Mountain by tribes that roamed the land long before settlers pushed into these remote desert areas. Tribal leaders, historians and environmentalists are prodding the Obama Administration to declare the Wind Mountain area a National Monument to protect the important history and culture of the region.

Larry Shea of the nearby Mescalero Apache Advocates for the Otero Mesa is fighting to keep these ancestral grounds from being destroyed. “We hold this area somewhat in a sacred sense for our people who have utilized this area as a place of refuge,” Shea told Journey OnEarth.

As the development fight over the Otero Mesa rolls on, dust storms blow tumbleweeds across the desert landscape, ricocheting off boulders adorned with fading Apache petroglyphs. Beneath these rocks, the search for rare earth elements may represent the end of this bio-gem world as we know it, a high-tech coup d’état for a remarkable environment that for now remains virtually untouched since time began.

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