A cave system in southeast New Mexico could unlock the secrets of creatures on Mars through scientific research into how the caves were formed by naturally-occurring acid and their unique, underground conditions.
That’s why protections against oil and gas development for the Guadalupe Cave Resource Protection area in a southern portion of Lincoln National Forest were requested to be extended by the U.S. Forest Service last week.
The area, about 28,500 acres in a section of the forest in the Guadalupe Ranger District near Carlsbad was first set aside from mineral development uses in 1988, but that expired in January 2021.
The Forest Service’s request to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would renew the withdrawal that was intended to prevent damage to a network of underground caves in the area and preserve its biodiversity.
The BLM, a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Interior, manages federal public land throughout New Mexico, permitting and regulating operations like oil and gas drilling and mining.
Final approval of the proposal will be decided by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, herself a former U.S. representative for New Mexico’s First Congressional District and frequent proponent of conservation and environmental efforts.
“The purpose of the requested withdrawal is to protect recreation use, the scenic integrity, and existing infrastructure in the Guadalupe Cave Resource Protection Area,” read a BLM news release.
“The withdrawal would prohibit location and entry under the United States mining laws, and leasing under the mineral leasing laws, subject to valid existing rights, for a period of 20 years.”
New Mexico’s caves give ‘unique’ opportunities for scientific research
Because of its uniqueness, Forest Service spokesperson Laura Rabon said the area was popular for researchers from around the world studying how caves develop overtime and the biology of the systems.
She pointed to a recent study from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that sought to learn more about possible organisms on Mars as they believed the caves could replicate conditions on the Red Planet.
“Scientists from around the world have come to study the caves on the Guadalupe Ranger District, which were formed in an unusual process involving sulfuric acid,” Rabon said.
Rabon said there were about 150 known caves in the area, some up to 6 million years old.
She said there could still be more caves the Service had yet to discover.
They also serve habitat for rare species of bats, owls and bobcats, while also providing recreation for permitted spelunkers.
“Cave ecosystems provide unique opportunities for scientific research and should therefore be preserved,” Rabon said. “The caves in this part of New Mexico are famous for their spectacular but fragile formations of stalagmites and stalactites.”
Aside from oil and gas, the area could still be used for surface uses like hiking, grazing or hunting, but fossil fuel extraction, Rabon said, was too risky to the caves.
“The nature of mining and oil and gas drilling involves penetrating under the earth’s surface, which could damage the network of underground caves,” Rabon said. “We have not received any pushback from oil and gas companies at this time.”
The Forest Service does not have any other areas under review for withdrawal, Rabon said, but could request protections for another cave management area in the Smokey Bear Ranger District to the north near Ruidoso and Capitan.
“We hope the BLM will renew the withdrawal so we can continue to protect the caves on the Lincoln National Forest.”
To solicit public feedback on the proposal, the BLM and Forest Service announced a virtual public meeting 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23 and started a public comment period running until April 25.
If approved by the BLM, the area would be blocked off from mineral development for 20 years.
Those interested in the participating in the public meeting on the withdrawal of the cave system can join via Microsoft Teams online at Lincoln National Forest’s website.
To participate: A public meeting on the proposed protections for the Guadalupe Cave Resource Protection Area was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23. The virtual meeting can be accessed at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/lincoln/home/?cid=FSEPRD987256.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.