An Australian mining company that's been making noise about searching for precious metals  near the Pecos Wilderness has taken the formal steps to seek approval of a new prospecting project. The US Forest Service announced Monday that public comments will be accepted on the proposal through Jan. 17.

This week, the Forest Service initiated the "scoping period" for the proposal, which is the first part of the environmental review process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act. In its new letter to the "Friends and Neighbors of the Santa Fe National Forest," the agency says public comments will help determine which issues and concerns to focus on during the NEPA process.

A public meeting to discuss the proposal and gather public comments is planned for Thursday, Dec. 12, from 6-8 pm at Pecos High School.

Comexico LLC, an American subsidiary of Australian mining company New World Cobalt, is seeking a permit that would cover one year of exploratory drilling on existing mineral deposits in and around Jones Hill. Those operations would help the corporation determine the feasibility of expanding to full-scale mining operations in the future.

According to the Forest Service letter, the company proposes to drill up to 30 core holes (at sites that were already previously disturbed by past prospecting activity), will only use existing roads, and will use less than 3 acre-feet of water from an existing well.

Although the proposed project area is near endangered species habitats, wetlands and floodplains, roadless areas and Native American religious sites, the agency's letter says it expects the proposed drilling activities to "have no adverse effects on these values."

Forest Service staff have already set some conditions on the application to enhance environmental protections. For example, it prohibits drilling until after the spotted owl breeding season, meaning drilling won't start until at least October 2020. The agency will also require the company to prevent the spread of invasive weeds by washing vehicles and equipment, and has mandated continued consultations with local tribes about the cultural resources in the area.

Yet, a coalition of local Pecos residents and environmental groups have been steadily organizing resistance to the project for fear that prospecting could lead to full-fledged mining in an area still suffering from the negative environmental impacts of past mines.

Mining laws that have not been changed since 1872 give companies the rights to explore and develop any mining claims on federal land, and strips the Forest Service of the power to stop projects all together. But based on the NEPA assessment, the agency can decide what kinds of hoops the company will have to jump through to move forward.

Proposed Pecos Exploration FAQ

Q: Will this process allow Comexico to build a new mine in the Pecos?

A: No.

As USFS stated several times in a letter to the public, "the project under consideration is not a mining proposal." The current proposal is for a year-long permit to drill holes into deposits on Jones Hill to determine how much zinc, gold, and copper is below the surface. Any future mining activities will require another permit, which means that Comexico or any company they sell the rights to in the future would have to go through the process all over again. But according to Comexico's own analysis, both the proximity of the historical Tererro mine and more recent prospecting activities on Jones Hill make is seem likely that the area's mineral deposits would support future mining activities.

The company has already secured the rights to other prospects surrounding Jones Hill. If exploration at Jones Hill turns up positive results, the company plans to expand its operations to surrounding sites.

On its website, New World Cobalt states, "the company's ultimate objective is to develop a centrally located processing facility that is fed by ore from multiple deposits, laying the foundations for the development of a significant new VMS [volcanogenic massive sulfide] camp."

Q: What kind of comments will the Forest Service take into consideration?

A: “Comments should be within the scope of the proposed action, have a direct relationship to the proposed action outlined in the letter, and include supporting reasons for the Forest Service to consider,” the agency says in its letter to the public.

Comments will be accepted via an online form, email, postal mail, hand delivery to the Pecos Ranger Station, or in public at the Dec. 12 meeting at Pecos High School.

Q: What happens next?

A: The New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division has a process to review the application, and then Santa Fe County will also have to review and vote on whether to approve the application in accordance with new mining laws passed by the Santa Fe County Commissioners in August. The Forest Service has prohibited any drilling activity to begin until after Oct. 1, 2020.