Sunday, October 27, 2013

Having said all that...Carlsbad is different

At the beginning of October of this year, KLK's and my stars came together to make possible a last-minute trip to southeastern New Mexico to realize a long-standing plan to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park -- where untold hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats stream en masse out of the cave each dusk to spend the nighttime saving the world from mosquitoes (well, moths primarily ) -- and while there to explore the adjacent, and much less well known Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Our flights to El Paso were booked for October 4. On October 1, the government shut down, and all national parks along with it. We decided to make the best of it, vainly hoping Washington would see the light and switch it back on. So off we went.

The adventure proved entirely worthwhile even though the parks remained decidedly closed. This is not to say that we didn't greatly regret not getting into the parks, which looked so very inviting from the outside, and, off the beaten path as they are, who knows when we might have an opportunity to try again?
Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, road closed ahead.
We stayed in the small desert town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has all the potential to be a classic gateway town, with its foundation, and survival, related to, and dependent upon, the discovery of natural wonders of sufficient importance to ultimately receive national park designation. However, Carlsbad is a little different from, say, Gardiner, Montana (Yellowstone) or Springdale, Utah (Zion NP).  Founded in the late 19th century by European immigrants attracted by the availability of water from the Pecos River for irrigation, deposits  of potash and other commercially important minerals, and so-named because of the early tourist attraction of mineral springs reminiscent of those of Karlsbad in what is now the Czech Republic, Carlsbad has always had a life of its own, independent of the cave and Guadalupe Mountains not far beyond.
My paternal grandfather and his wife visiting the baths in the original Karlsbad, 1937
Nonetheless, the value of the cave as a natural treasure and tourist destination was recognized in the early 20th century. First declared a national monument (a sort of "national park lite") in 1923, and a national park just seven years later, the main attraction was the exceptionally large and beautiful cave itself. The bats were only latterly embraced as the most interesting and important feature of the park.

So why was it that some of the locals I spoke to during our brief stay were in fact unaware  that Carlsbad and Guadalupe Mountains were closed? Because in recent years, the presence of bounteous and easily extracted oil and gas deposits have overwhelmed many times over the importance of the national parks as drawers of economic activity to the area.

I know nearly nothing about the extraction of oil and gas, but the briefest of internet researches enlightened me about the richness of the Permian Basin where Carlsbad lies, more or less due South of Roswell on this map. Note please that this is the oil industry's idea of where the Permian basin is, not necessarily 100% overlapping with the scientific designation of the Permian Basin in North America. 
Map borrowed from Rigzone, but available from various sources
My appallingly rudimentary understanding of how oil is formed is that accumulated organic matter (animal and vegetable) is buried, and over eons ultimately compressed by layers of sediment and rock that either form, or slide over by subsidence and uplift, the remains until pressures, heat, and chemical reactions form petroleum hydrocarbons. The Permian Basin was once the Permian Sea, creating ideal conditions for the build-up of organic matter and silt, and, presto-change-o!: fuel for the internal combustion engine and many other purposes eons and eons later. Live Science has a better explanation of the process of oil formation; The Texas State Historical Association provides a good brief history of the  discovery and business of oil extraction in the Permian Basin.

Despoliation of the desert landscape and atmosphere is easily visible from the highway along the corridor from just north of the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns all the way to Roswell. 
I did my best to observe something about the relationship of the petroleum industry to the town of Carlsbad in the brief time we were there, starting when I made a reservations at our hotel. I inquired as to why the prices were unexpectedly high, and varied such that they were lowest over the weekend (when one might expect regular influxes of park visitors) and highest on Monday, the only weeknight of our stay. The answer was, "Oh, it's because travelers are here on business with the oil and mineral industries" during the work week: a tid-bit of evidence as to the unexpectedly minor impact of the national parks. 

There were no authorities around to chat with me, but I did start a conversation with a young man, also a guest in our hotel, who told me he was a geologist with the Dutch equivalent of the US Geological Survey, in town to meet with US Bureau of Land Management colleagues, who of course were furloughed and unable to do business. Yet another example of the economic impact of the government shut down, not just on Americans, but foreign partners in enterprise as well. His thing turned out to be fossils, which I take it are hints of the age of the formations in which they're found, perhaps informing conclusions about the likely presence of untapped oil or gas. While the conversation was interesting, I learned little about the matter of drilling for oil.

As the hotel was otherwise almost empty the first couple of mornings we were there, I befriended the lovely lady who attended the breakfast buffet (very good, and included in the price!). She clearly enjoyed our conversations and came out of the kitchen every day to say good-morning. She was of Mexican heritage (as is a very large fraction of the local populace) but spoke standard American English suggesting she was raised on this side of the border. Curious as to the local benefits of all this extraction, I asked her if there were good jobs to be had for the locals in the oil fields. She immediately answered, "Oh yes, there are lots and lots of good jobs around here, but the people can't keep them. They fail the drug tests!" She meant it sincerely. That was one of the saddest answers I could imagine.

So who is doing all the heavy lifting? Right on cue, as foretold by the rising price of a hotel night, on Monday the town filled up with roustabouts and roughnecks and swampers and technicians and truck drivers and riggers, men of all races, ages, sizes and descriptions, and a tough-looking woman or two, the kind you'd expect to see with their hardhats resting on the table next to their plates as we did at the Carlsbad China Dragon Buffet at our last dinner before heading back to Chicago the next morning.

They're not locals, so they must be commuters from elsewhere in the region, maybe El Paso 160 miles to the southwest, but within driving distance of the oil fields. One thing we did not see was any evidence of a residential building boom. Wise, as once the fields finally play out, there will be only the environmental clean-up work and the business of the national parks to sustain Carlsbad.

1 comment:

  1. We were in North Dakota where a huge oil boom is changing the state. Here locally were have "fracking" disputes about sand mining to support the oil drilling. "Progress' has its price and since money talks the most wherever it comes into play we know the result. Still Minnesotans are still thankfully at least willing to give the environment consequences some consideration.....