The Red Paint Canyon Battle
Defending a natural and cultural gem
by Sherry Robinson, Crosswindsweekly
Chief Victorio protested, ?This country belongs to my people as it did to my forefathers.?
It was 1875, and the government planned to move Victorio and his Warm Springs Apache people from Ojo Caliente, their homeland in southwestern New Mexico, to the despised San Carlos Reservation in Arizona. It wasn?t the first or last time they would be taken away, and they would return, as they had many times before.
?The Warm Springs Apaches loved that spot,? the late James Kaywaykla said of his people.
Ojo Caliente, like the better known village in northern New Mexico, got its name because of a spring. This Ojo Caliente, 38 miles northwest of Truth or Consequences, feeds Alamosa Creek, which over time has sliced its way through rock to form a picturesque box canyon. The Apaches cherished Ojo Caliente for its water, grassland and defensible location. Attacked from either side, they could flee to the box canyon and take refuge, rolling rocks down on their attackers.
According to Chiricahua Apache oral history, the entire tribe once lived in Ojo. There they received supernatural powers and learned the customs of their people. Afterward the tribe divided into four bands. The Warm Springs band remained and the other three moved south and west.
In 1859 the army established an outpost at Ojo Caliente along the river. At the village of Ca?ada Alamosa, 17 miles down the canyon, Hispanic farmers tilled their fields and maintained friendly relations with the Apaches.
Ojo Caliente had another feature important to the Apaches. Nearby was Red Paint Canyon, a source of pigment the Warm Springs people used to paint their faces. In their own language they?re called Chihenne, or Red Paint People.
Along came a miner
Rancher Kenneth ?Tey? Sullivan, who owns Red Paint Canyon, wants to explore its mining potential and has asked the state for permission to drill. His family has owned land adjoining Ojo Caliente for generations.
It?s Sullivan?s third try. In 2002, he and David Tognoni, a geological engineer, began mining without a permit. Local residents alerted the state Mining and Minerals Division, which promptly shut them down. They returned this year and applied for a minimal?impact exploration permit to drill 30 holes. The state denied the permit in April because of potential impact to streams and habitat.
Next, the two enlisted Great Western Exploration LLC, which on May 11 reapplied for a minimal?impact permit. Their scaled? down plans now call for five holes up to 2,000 feet deep. They?ve moved the proposed drill sites away from the spring and creek and say in the application that disturbance wouldn?t exceed five acres.
Their interest is a deposit of bertrandite, a source of beryllium, which is somewhat scarce. Once used in nuclear weapons, beryllium has found new applications in electronics and golf clubs, but it?s a small, specialized market. In the past, beryllium exposure has been a health issue.
A geologist with the New Mexico Bureau of Mines & Mineral Resources is skeptical about the potential of this deposit. ?Great caution needs to be used in these situations,? he said. ?It could be a new discovery, but it?s somewhat unlikely.?
Little is known of Great Western except that the company incorporated in 2004 in Windsor, Colo. Tognoni is listed as a subcontractor and has apparently been involved in other small projects in the state. They?ve hired AMEC, an environmental consulting firm. The same players are also drilling on two other sites in Sierra County. Sullivan and Great Western have declined to comment; AMEC didn?t return calls.
The prospect of drilling or mining has alarmed residents of Monticello, the former Ca?ada Alamosa. The cottonwood?shaded village of about 50 people is a mix of long? time residents and newcomers.
?Any holes drilled have great potential for harm not only to our waters but also to the surrounding ecosystem,? says organic farmer Joshua Cravens. ?The surface water we irrigate with comes from the spring. Our well water is from the same aquifer.?
?The massive, deep drilling proposed is likely to penetrate several layers of ground water and thereby risk causing catastrophic damage to the quantity of water flowing down the creek,? writes Dennis O?Toole, who lives in the canyon. And drilling could lead to waste water discharge, which would drain toward the springs and the river.
Residents and neighboring ranchers also worry about the impact of moving heavy equipment around and carving drill pads, which could degrade ground cover and exacerbate erosion and silting.
Ojo Caliente is a warm spring that feeds Alamosa Creek. Considered sacred by the Warm Springs Apache people, it’s at the heart of their homeland.
This unusual water source and riparian area is habitat to creatures on state or federal lists of threatened or endangered species ? the Alamosa springsnail, the ovate vertigo snail and the Chiricahua leopard frog. The environmental issues have drawn the interest of the Sierra Club.
?We?ve received many, many calls and letters from citizens in the area,? says Karen Garcia, bureau chief of the state?s Mine Regulation Bureau.
The regulatory process requires the state Mining and Minerals Division to solicit comments from other agencies before making a decision. In the previous application, the state Surface Water Bureau held out concerns about impacts to surface water; the Game and Fish Department raised the issue of the toxicity of beryllium and noted that the geology in the canyon and groundwater connections aren?t well understood. This led mining regulators to deny minimal?impact status. Federal agencies are not involved because the proposed mine is on private land.
The decision is again before the Mining and Minerals Division. A minimal?impact application doesn?t require a public hearing, but the state was meeting with residents at press time and had not yet made a decision.
Regardless of the state?s decision, opponents know the fight isn?t over. ?Ultimately, we want to find somebody to buy the land and conserve it,? says Cravens. …
[read more about the history of the Warm Springs Apache – Cover Story Archives
mjh’s Blog: Help Save A Special Place in New Mexico – the Monticello Box in New Mexico