ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. >> Underground pockets of boiling water and steam that could have been tapped to produce electricity are now off limits as one national forest in northern New Mexico has said no to the prospect of geothermal development.
The decision by the Santa Fe National Forest follows years of study and public testimony after a Nevada-based company and others had shown interest in leasing areas with geothermal resources within the Jemez Mountains — a tourist draw that includes a national preserve and a neighboring monument.
Santa Fe National Forest wrote in a decision made public Thursday that the area also includes places held sacred by Native American tribes.
Forest Supervisor James Melonas’ decision covers more than 300 square miles (785 square kilometers) of the mountainous terrain even though the companies had interest in only a fraction of that.
Melonas said geothermal energy development could have potential effects on forest resources, recreational opportunities and tribal cultural and spiritual interests. His office consulted with more than 30 tribes from around the American Southwest and held two listening sessions with tribal leaders.
“The tribes are committed to preserving their cultural ties to this sacred landscape,” the decision states. “They made it clear that they will not sanction man-made disturbances at the scale required for energy production.”
The decision comes as the National Park Service weighs a proposal that would allow for extra federal protection to limit or prevent any negative effects from tapping geothermal energy on land surrounding the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the heart of the Jemez Mountains.
If approved, the preserve — dubbed the “Yellowstone of the Southwest” — would become the 17th U.S. park unit with designated thermal features.
Yellowstone, Crater Lake and Hawaii volcanoes already are on the list of parks with federally protected geothermal features.
Ernie Atencio with the National Parks Conservation Association said that although geothermal energy is a valuable resource, development in the Jemez Mountains could dry up many of the features that make Valles Caldera so unique.
Efforts to tap the steam beneath the caldera and the surrounding area date back decades, with the energy crisis of the 1970s spurring the first major wave of interest in the nation’s geothermal resources.
The U.S. Energy Department, Union Oil Co. and Public Service Co. of New Mexico spent millions of dollars looking into the feasibility of developing a geothermal power plant on what was then private property. The idea was ultimately abandoned in the 1980s.
Experts have said the caldera is still hot enough to produce steam and could generate electricity if harnessed.
Interest in New Mexico’s geothermal resources picked up again about a decade ago after the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental review aimed at facilitating geothermal development in a dozen western states.
California has two of the largest geothermal reservoirs in the U.S., and land managers say Nevada has 18 operating geothermal power plants with federal interest and that more exploration and development is underway in that state.
Utah has two geothermal plants, and the Forest Service is reviewing leasing proposals for more projects there.
In New Mexico, the Bureau of Land Management confirmed it has not received any new expressions of interest for geothermal development since 2015, when the forest’s environmental review process began.
Environmentalists are touting the Santa Fe Forest’s decision against geothermal development as a win, saying well pads, pumps and other infrastructure don’t belong in such a heavily visited area.
“This outcome is a direct result of New Mexicans standing together to say with a collective voice that this area is too special to be harmed,” said Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild.
The case spurred several hundred comments to be submitted to the Santa Fe National Forest.