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Richardson asks BLM to protect Otero Mesa grasses

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is asking the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to consider designating the grasslands on Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico as an area of critical environmental concern.

Richardson said July 11 in a news release such designation would help protect wildlife habitat, wilderness characteristics and ground water.

''I urge the BLM to consider how best to safeguard this unique landscape for the future, including consideration of an ACEC designation,'' Richardson wrote in a letter to BLM managers.

A BLM spokesman said agency officials weren't available for comment.

Some BLM-managed grasslands on Otero Mesa already have been designated as areas of critical environmental concern and it wasn't clear whether Richardson wanted to expand existing protection or create newly protected areas.

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The BLM has proposed opening parts of the 2-million-acre mesa to oil and natural gas drilling. Otero Mesa is a vast desert located just north of the Texas-New Mexico border and east of El Paso, Texas.

Otero Mesa is one of the last undisturbed areas of Chihuahuan desert. Richardson cited its diverse ecosystem, which includes mule deer, pronghorn antelope, aplomado falcons, black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls and other wildlife.

The area also includes Native petroglyphs and preserved sections of the 1860s-era Butterfield Trail stage line.

The mesa also includes an aquifer that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates may contain as much as 15 million acre-feet of fresh water, which could be tapped to supply communities in southern New Mexico.

Drilling advocates have said technological advances will allow extraction of petroleum or gas without disturbing the aquifer.

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