Moseying: Living La Vida Llanero
Changing landscape of the oilfield
September 22, 2004
"Landfarming is an important means of cleaning contaminated soils." Gil Van Deventer, of Trident Environmental pointed out of the window at two such operations as we neared Eunice, New Mexico. He and I were surveying various reclamation sites in southeast New Mexico. When salt-water and oil spills occur the soil may have to be removed, or it may be amended so plants can grow again. I had been asked to identify plant associations of the region, so that environmental specialists could more accurately identify what species of seed are most suited for replanting.
Landfarming occurs when contaminated soil is treated onsite or removed to another location specifically prepared to reduce concentrations of petroleum constituents through biodegradation. The soils are spread in a thin layer and aerobic microbial activity within the soils is enhanced through aeration and the addition of minerals, nutrients, and moisture. I had seen the facilities before, but had no idea what was going on, other than massive amounts of dirt-moving. In the last few decades increased compliance with environmental laws had stimulated this new economic development. The same area near the Texas-New Mexico border has been proposed for a low-level nuclear waste site as well.
As we drove, my guide pointed out the trucks and installations of other oilfield environmental companies. I was impressed by all that is being done in the oil field to remediate the problems that have occurred. During the morning's exploration of the area, Gil pulled out a Bureau of Economic Geology Map (Hobbs Sheet) to show me where the Ogallala Aquifer extended into the region. As I looked at it, I realized it had the best set of surface landmarks I have seen on a map of the region. It showed the exact location of several features of which I had found mentioned in historical documents, but had never found any other map with the landmarks. Los Medanos, Querecho Plains, San Simon Sink are mentioned in Gil Hinshaw's history of Lea County, for example.
After I expressed my excitement about the map, our conversation moved to other historical sites of the region. When I wondered where Monument Spring was located, Gil knew which gravel county road to take that led right past Jimmy Cooper's Monument Spring Ranch. It was nestled in a pretty valley full of soapberry, hackberry, and Siberian Elms. Monument Spring was an important hiding place for the last Apaches and Comanches of the region. Colonel Shafter led the first U.S. Army troops in the region in 1871 during a loop from Fort Davis up to the western edge of the Llano Estacado and back, but he missed the spring. In 1875 he returned, looking for the last of the Indians that refused to go to the reservations, and found the spring.
Monument Spring is named for the monument that Shafter had built a mile or so southwest of the spring. "It is a very large spring of excellent water, enough for thousands of horses. The site has the finest quality grasses in the region, with plenty of wood for fuel, and rock for construction." As we looked out over the valley, I thought about two varying perceptions of the landscape. In today's landscape, a person looks out over the network of oil field roads leading to wells, tank batteries, gas plants, and salt water disposal wells. The constructions of the oil field obscure the casual observer from seeing the land as an early-day rancher would have seen it.
In the 1880s Monument Spring was choice property. Two buffalo hunters claimed the spring in 1884. The Earl of Aylesford came to Big Spring to become a big time rancher like other members of the titled gentry of England. In 1885, he sent his chief assistant, R.F. Kennedy, to Monument Spring. Kennedy paid the buffalo hunters $5,500 of his own money for the water rights, and immediately drove a thousand cattle to the ranch. The Earl, who had arranged to pay Kennedy for the ranch, drank himself to death, but Kennedy held on to the land for six years, before selling out to the McKenzie brothers and returning to England.
The McKenzie brothers began piecing together a large ranch, including the Monument Spring ranch, but overextended themselves, and in 1894 Winfield Scott, the son of the Mexican War general, took over 684 sections (square miles) in the region. One of the herds he bought to stock the ranch was the "hat" brand, by which the ranch became known. In 1905 his corporate ranch was broken up. From 1906 to 1938 Bill Weir owned the land around the spring, and his sons Bert and George became U.S. champion ropers. Will Rogers worked on the ranch at age 18, learning the rope tricks that later made him famous.
Another map in Gils possession named each oil field in the region. Each oil field is another form of landmark, and each has its own history. When the history of the oil fields are compared with the ranching history of the region, the interweaving of these two major historical strands of economic utilization becomes comprehendible. As far as I can determine, this sort of comparison has rarely been written about in either popular writings or historical journals. For me, the comparison helps me understand just what makes west Texas what it is today. Nowadays many of the oil fields of the Permian Basin are in the hands of independents based locally. The independent oil operators are people with a long-term stake in living in the region, so as a result they have a strong sense of responsibility and respect for the land and the water beneath the soil.
The importance of the environmental restoration and remediation industry, which appears to be a growth industry in the region, is also rarely commented upon in sources that I have found. I believe that this focus on environmental restoration is important to contrast with the perception that the area is "used up and thrown away" that people have when they observe the shuttered up stores and dwindling size of the region's small towns. As the Permian Basin moves to a more diversified economy, our regional society is developing new "paradigms of perception."