Mora County is in northeastern New Mexico, east of the Sangre de Christo mountains, edging down towards the high plains. Its geography accounts for its two national forests and one national grassland. Its history accounts for its one national monument, Fort Union, once a major regional military outpost, fortified against Native Americans and Mexicans, now a ruin of random walls and chimneys.
The population density is approximately three people per square mile and dropping. The 2016 population estimate was 4,500, down from 4,900 in 2010, 5,200 in 2000 and just under 14,000 in 1920. The biggest village in the county is Wagon Mound. It has about 300 people living in the shadow of a rocky butte of the same name. That’s down more than 20% from 16 years before.
Someone just going by the numbers would say Mora County is in decline, but for many of the people who live there; who go by the beauty of the mountains, the forest skies and plains, they say they’ve got a pat hand worth stickin’ with.
Outsiders know about Mora County, New Mexico mostly because of a local ordinance passed there, challenged in court and rejected as contrary to federal law. The ordinance would have prohibited any kind of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” for oil or gas extraction anywhere in the county. It was meant as a countywide “Do Not Disturb sign.”
There is no fracking going on, or even planned for Mora County right now, but there could be in the future, because a Republican land commissioner Pat Lyons, who was defeated when he ran last November, sold development leases to energy companies on 60,000 acres of state trust land. The price was 25 cents an acre and showed what a lot of trouble you can buy for $15,000.
People make a mistake, said the late, great Israeli author Amos Oz, when they say tragedy is about conflicts between right and wrong, where the wrong side wins. No, wrote Oz, tragedy is about two conflicting rights.
Lawyers for landowners or lease-holders like Shell Oil framed the conflict as a fight to protect individuals’ right to dispose of their property. Lawyers for the Mora County Commission said it was about a community’s right to define itself. In effect, to be left alone.
U.S. District Judge James O. Browning decided the case by nullifying the county ordinance not on the merits of whose rights had the better claim to be protected, but on the U.S. Constitution’s prioritization of legal authorities which says, where there are conflicts between laws, federal laws supersede state or local ones. The judge said the Mora County ban on fracking was so sweeping, it exceeded all regulations in federal law and was therefore invalid.
Y’know the expression, you win some and you lose some? That’s how former Mora County Commissioner John Olivas feels about the ordinance he campaigned for. It probably cost him his seat on the commission, and, of course, the case was lost in Albuquerque federal court, but the principle, he says has won elsewhere, especially in the states of Maryland and New York where anti-fracking law have passed the legislatures and are presently in force.
David Luis Leal Cortez made Drilling Mora County supported by a $10,000 grant from the Max and Anna Levinson Foundation in Santa Fe. The film covers the first county in the US to ban fracking and its lawsuit in Federal Court via interviews with local attorneys, activists, and elected officials. The film has had successful screenings throughout New Mexico at venues like The Jean Cocteau Theater in Santa Fe, The Guild Cinema in ABQ, and the Harwood Museum in Taos.
Cortez’ next documentary, Successful Outlaw follows the life of biker, builder and master silversmith, Daniel “Pepe” Rochon, (Trailer) as he builds an off grid, adobe, 4000 square foot, Sonora style hacienda (Foundation Sequence). During the 70’s Pepe lived and worked at the Mabel Dodge Lujan House when Dennis Hopper was owner and is a rare individual who continues to live the ideals of the counter culture crusaders who arrived and started communes in Northern New Mexico in the 60’s (Concho Belts). As a director, David calls it “counter cultural preservation.”