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Mescalero Students Ask President's Daughters to Help Save Otero Mesa


Photo courtesy Ruidoso News

A place where energy demand collides with unspoiled wildlife habitat, Otero Mesa in southern Otero County for the past decade generated debate between those wanting to preserve the sprawling piece of land and those hoping to exploit its resource riches.

Most of the wrangling has occurred between politicians, representatives of environmental groups and officials with natural gas and mining firms.

But within the last six months, a class of fifth graders at Mescalero Schools entered the fray, writing letters, drawing pictures of the treasures of the mesa and visiting the petroglyph sites that tell the story of their ancestors' pact with the land.

More recently, the students and their instructor decided to bypass the adults for now and to appeal directly to Malia and Sasha Obama, the president's daughters.

"My fifth-grade class first became aware of Otero Mesa through Styve Homnick (founder and director of Citizens for Otero Mesa). He was a weekly visitor to our class and spoke about his 'New York' culture, as well as introducing Otero Mesa," said Mescalero Schools teacher Wendolyn Murphy. "None of the students were aware of the mesa or the significance of it and how it relates to their culture. With some brainstorming, the students decided to write a letter to Sasha and Malia Obama. They thought they could connect with the young ladies due to their age and possibly interest them in the Apache culture.

"Because of the time constraints, the students really couldn't do much else in being more involved. The students chose eight to continue to learn and to explore ways to preserve Otero Mesa through the summer. The students exchanged numbers and will be meeting with (Homnick) and other involved in educating (the public) and saving the mesa."

The students prepared a packet of letters, photographs and newspapers articles about the mesa in the hope that the idealism of youth might capture the attention of the most powerful man in the nation.

The need to push for Congressional or other protective action for the mesa became more urgent in October 2012, when a finding of no significant impact was issued by the Bureau of Land Management, the agency with jurisdiction over the land.

The finding opened the way for an application by the Harvey E. Yates Co. to drill an exploratory natural gas well.

The packet, which told of the importance of the mesa to the cultural history of the Apache and the need to protect natural resources, was sent to several elected officials and agency representatives, including U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat representing New Mexico.

His assistant, Whitney Potter, confirmed recently that the packet was received by his local office and was passed on to the White House. The students are hoping they hear directly from Malia and Sasha.

But whatever ultimately happens, the students said they are grateful to Homnick, who guided them through their exploration of the mesa, its cultural and natural history and its importance today and for tomorrow.

Visiting revealed value 

Every time 14-year-old Arian Enjady, headman of the Mescalero Apache Guardians of Alamo Mountain, visits Otero Mesa, he finds new clusters of petroglyphs, left by prehistoric bands of the Mogollon, as well as by groups that arrived later to hunt or were on their way to the mountains.

"Styve told me about it. I checked it out and then kept going and going and going," Arian said. "Every time I went, I saw new petroglyphs."

Since that first trip a couple years ago, Arian has returned at least 10 times. "Most everything there is worth preserving, wildlife, the history, the artifacts," he said.

His mother, father and sister all have gone with him on one trip or another, and his sister also actively is involved in trying to protect the mesa, Arian said.

"I wrote letters and drew some traditional pictures explaining what is on the petroglyphs," he said. "I would like to see it set aside for hiking and camping, any kind of protected status that would keep it from being mined or drilled."

Arian said he was not aware of the land's connection to the Apache before Homnick and Mescalero former tribal council member Larry Shay spoke to classes at the school. 

"I look at the drawings and see how amazing they are, how much power in the images," Arian said, adding that tribal elders have helped him interpret the meanings of the petroglyphs.

"When we learned about the drilling, exploration and mining planned, the (students) thought maybe they should write to Mrs. Obama to come down and explore the mesa with us and to have her stop them from doing this."

But as the packet was assembled, the students decided to aim for the girls, who were closer to their ages.

The mesa

According to information contained in the packet, the general area of Otero Mesa was called by early Native Americans the "base of the mountain, where plain hits it," an apt description of a mesa that abuts the Sacramento Mountains in the north and the Guadalupe Mountains to the east.

Homnick said many avenues are open to protect the mesa.

"It is devine proof that anywhere a national monument is created, even though it may be opposed at first by the local community, it becomes a source of revenue for hotels, restaurant, shops, retailers, speeding tickets, mechanics. People start coming from around the world. Otero Mesa is on a list of the fifth-best destination in New Mexico and it is huge for the Audubon Society for birding."

When he was researching data for an article about economic engine possibilities, Homnick said he discovered that bird watchers bring in more revenue than golfers, tennis players and skiers combined.

"You've got hikers on 1.2 million acres, maybe 400,000 acres of undisturbed desert grasslands left in New Mexico," he said. "What about people who like to see petroglyphs and what about hunters. The mesa has the best native herd of pronghorn in the state."

While in 1955, more than 70 ranches existed on the mesa, the number is down to 25 and maybe four are working ranches, he said. "Most are getting older and their kids don't want to take it over, and there is money to be made," from leasing the land to natural gas and mining companies. 

"Short term, it's all about drilling," Homnick said. "Long term, it is about our children." Besides its natural resources, the mesa is rich in natural and human history, such as the remains of petrified coral reefs. Texas rangers "were cut to bits there and there are caves where ceremonial dress was found," he said. Evidence of seasonal homes of the Apache is obvious, he said.

Excerpted from an article originally published by the Ruidoso News

Additionally, thank you to Styve Homnick for his participation in this effort and the publication of this story.

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