People | By J.D. Heyman, Zelie Pollon | October 21, 2002
Don't call Tweeti Blancett an environmentalist. For most of her adult life the flinty cattle rancher disdained those who wanted to run energy companies out of the rugged, resource-rich corner of northwestern New Mexico she calls home. "I'm a Republican and a capitalist," declares Blancett, 57, who campaigned for former oilmen George W. Bush and Dick Cheney during the 2000 presidential elections. "I'm not against oil and gas companies."
All Blancett wants is for such energy conglomerates as ConocoPhillips, El Paso Natural Gas and Burlington Resources to repair the damage she says they've caused to the high desert plateau her husband's family has ranched for eight generations. The companies--which operate drilling sites near Blancett's hometown of Aztec, N. Mex. (pop. 7,300), on federal property that's also leased by locals as pasture--say they are trying to safeguard land they share with ranchers. But Blancett claims their activities have wiped out vegetation, polluted water, killed livestock and caused financial hardship. "Enough is enough," says the grandmother of two, who has worked with environmental groups to force companies to restore drilled rangeland since June 2001. "They can afford to fix what they destroy." The companies say that ranchers are compensated when property is harmed and their woes stem more from years of drought than drilling. "We're working on addressing problems," says Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association. "But I don't think that we can solve them all in 12 months when it took 50 years to get those problems."
However long it takes, Blancett is in the fight for the long haul. The daughter of two civil servants, she was born Treciafaye Walser and grew up in Alamogordo, N.Mex. Tweeti (as she was nicknamed) met Linn Blancett, now 57, while studying to be a teacher at New Mexico State in Las Cruces, where he was an agricultural education major. The couple wed in 1965, and both graduated three years later. In 1968 the family--including son Cole, now 34 and an engineer--moved back to Linn's hometown of Aztec to run the 48,000-acre Blancett Ranches, a business dating to the 1800s.
At first Tweeti had no quarrel with energy companies, who have provided jobs in the local community. But over the past decade or so, she says, many became more concerned about turning a profit than respecting the land. Two years ago, she charges, Burlington Resources let salt-ridden water from a well leak onto her property for months and neglected to reseed after drilling, while another company, Koch Exploration, failed to respond to complaints about a saltwater disposal pit. (Burlington says it reseeded but that drought conditions killed the grass; Koch says Blancett's complaints are unjustified.) "They wanted a fight," she says. "They got one."
Infuriated, Blancett organized ranchers to join forces with environmentalists. The coalition began prodding the federal Bureau of Land Management to enforce regulations and punish polluters. In May, Blancett testified before Congress to oppose White House efforts to open more public land to drilling. "Tweeti is very politically connected," says Gwen Lachelt, who heads the Durango, Colo.-based Oil & Gas Accountability Project. "She commands respect in Washington."
Blancett's opponents say they are already working hard to police themselves. "There are companies that take shortcuts," says Gallagher. "But it's unfair to blame the entire industry." Yet even they admire her grit. "She can be a thorn in your side, but also a conscience," says John Zent, an executive at Burlington Resources. Fellow ranchers have been inspired by her example. "Squaring off against giant oil companies is nothing compared to trying to get ranchers to sit down with environmentalists," says cattleman Don Schreiber. "By God, she has done that."
Blancett knows the battle is just beginning. "We don't have the lobbying money those big oil companies have," she says. "But we have to keep fighting or there won't be any land for our children."People: