• Otero Mesa

    Stretching from Northern Hudspeth County across much of Otero County, N.M. to the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains, the Otero Mesa is a rare thing – more than 1 million acres of desert grasslands and mountains that have remained virtually untouched by industrial development. Conservationists describe the mesa as a pristine Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem that needs protection, and they have called on the federal government to declare Bureau of Land Management lands there a national monument. For many Herald readers, the Otero Mesa is home, and many in our local ranching community fear that a national monument designation would mean the end of historic livestock operations. The mesa, and the Cornudas Mountains which rise from its midst, testify to centuries of Native American history, in the form of abundant rock art and other artifacts, and some Mescalero Apache leaders have joined the call for federal protection of the land. Beginning in 2001, conservation advocates and some area landowners fought a decade-long battle against plans to open the mesa to oil-and-gas drilling, ultimately winning a stay on such activity. In late 2010, a company called Geovic Mining Corp staked mining claims on Wind Mountain, the largest peak in the Cornudas Range, and, in the summer of 2011, the company began exploratory drilling there for the heavy metals known as rare earth elements. The mining project has further fueled the debate over the future of Otero Mesa.
  • Checkpoint of the Stars

    Beginning with the arrest on marijuana charges of Willie Nelson in November 2010, Sierra Blanca has gained a certain national notoriety – as a bane for pot-toting celebrities. Observers far from the region often assume that local law officers in the Hudspeth County seat are on a mission to arrest famous people. But these busts, as local residents know, are made by federal agents at the Sierra Blanca Border Patrol checkpoint, 4 miles west of town, who in turn pass the work of citing or arresting and incarcerating the people they detain on to the Hudspeth County sheriff’s department.
    While Hudspeth County is the site of two Border Patrol checkpoints, the checkpoint west of Sierra Blanca is on Interstate 10, a main transportation artery, and it generates scores of drug citations and arrests each day, the great bulk of which involve U.S. citizens in possession of small amounts of marijuana. When Nelson’s arrest was followed by the drug busts of rapper Snoop Dogg and actor Armie Hammer, area Border Patrol officials took to calling the Sierra Blanca facility the “Checkpoint of the Stars.”
    Though Hudspeth County does reap benefits from the presence of the Border Patrol, and from the broader influx of federal homeland-security money that has flowed to southern border counties since 9/11, the checkpoint also imposes significant burdens on Hudspeth County. The already cash-strapped county bears the cost of incarcerating and prosecuting individuals arrested at the checkpoint – costs that far exceed the revenues generated by fines. Payments to Hudspeth County from a Department of Justice program aimed at compensating border counties for the expenses of these “federally initiated” cases have been intermittent at best. Though deputies are active in a host of other duties, Sierra Blanca checkpoint incidents account for the vast majority of cases handled each year by the Hudspeth County sheriff’s department. Hudspeth County deputies regularly respond each month to more than 200 checkpoint cases, mostly small marijuana cases, and FBI records indicate that Hudspeth County has had the highest per capita arrest rate of any of Texas’ border counties. In April 2012, with county finances strained to the breaking point, and exasperated by the lack of federal reimbursement, county officials for a time refused to accept the checkpoint cases, meaning that for several weeks people stopped at the checkpoint with felony-level drug possession were allowed to go free. Beyond the headlines and celebrity mug shots, Sierra Blanca’s “Checkpoint of the Stars” underscores the complex ways in which the nation’s drug and border-security policies play out in one low-income border county.

  • Mining

    In 2011, the Herald began covering two emerging mining projects in the newspaper’s readership area. In both projects, companies plan to extract heavy metals known as rare earth elements from the volcanic rock of local mountains; Texas Rare Earth Resources (TRER) is pursuing a mining project at Round Top Mountain, in the Sierra Blanca Range, near the Hudspeth County seat, while Geovic Mining Corp is targeting rock in Wind Mountain, a 7,200-foot peak north of Dell City and just across the state line in New Mexico. In addition to rare earths, TRER plans to mine uranium at its Round Top Project. TRER envisions removing much of Round Top Mountain to extract the metals, while Geovic describes a “low-impact” project that would tunnel under the mountain and remove material from within. Rare earths are crucial for many contemporary technologies – from handheld consumer electronics and laptops to wind turbines, missiles and night-vision goggles. China produces almost all of the world’s rare earths, and the increasing importance of the metals and concerns about the reliability of the Chinese supply have prompted a small global rush to develop new sources. In addition to meeting a need for the resources, the mining projects could contribute to local economic development. Though both companies have stressed their intentions to be environmentally responsible, the projects also raise environmental concerns. Rare earths often occur in conjunction with radioactive elements, and the Mountain Pass mine, a rare earth site in California, was shut down for a time after regulators learned that hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic and radioactive fluid had been released into the surrounding desert.
  • Water

    Access to and management of water are central issues in the arid West – both in daily life and in politics. Water issues play out in a host of ways in Hudspeth County, whether it’s the development of water infrastructure for communities here or flows on the Rio Grande. Northern Hudspeth County in particular has a unique and charged situation with regards to water. Dell City sits atop an abundant source of groundwater – known as the Bone Springs-Victorio Peak Aquifer; hydrologists say the aquifer is replenished by snow and rainfall in the mountains to the north, and the aquifer has a high rate of recharge. The abundant groundwater has sustained farming in the Dell Valley since the late 1940s, but has more recently drawn the attention of El Paso water planners and parties interested in marketing groundwater to the growing desert city. Conflicts over the future of the Dell Valley’s groundwater have generated lawsuits, one of which was ultimately decided by the Texas Supreme Court (Guitar Holding Co. LP v. Hudspeth County Underground Water Conservation District), and debates over the use of the Dell Valley's aquifer. and other ground- and surface water resources in the region, will doubtless shape life in Hudspeth County in the decades to come.
  • The Border

    Hudspeth County is bounded on the south by a 100-mile stretch of the Rio Grande. The county’s borderland location is central to the culture and life of its residents, but it also produces challenges and problems. Just downriver of the Juarez Valley, Hudspeth County is traversed by drug-trafficking and human-smuggling routes. Border Patrol checkpoints are situated on the two east-west thoroughfares that pass through the county, and one of those checkpoints, west of Sierra Blanca, generates hundreds of drug cases each month. National policies related to border security, immigration and drugs play out in the daily lives of Hudspeth County residents.