A mix of protesters who normally aren’t on the same side of a fight — Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, hunters, horsemen and hikers — marched on the state Capitol on Wednesday in a shared defense of federal public lands.
“Once public land is gone, it’s gone forever. There is no getting it back,” said Jesse Deubel, an Edgewood housing contractor and director of United Bowhunters of New Mexico, as he walked from the Roundhouse to the nearby State Land Office with hundreds of other demonstrators.
Deubel, a former Republican, and other protesters said they fear a national Republican push to turn federal lands over to state control is picking up steam, one piece of legislation at a time. With Republicans firmly in control of Congress and the White House, and the transfer of federal lands to states listed as part of the GOP platform, there’s reason for their concern. Bills calling for land transfers are already working their way though statehouses and Congress.
“Public lands turned over to the state will be bartered for political favors, used as bargaining chips and used to pay back donors,” Deubel said.
Republicans who support transferring management of federal lands and mineral rights to states say that for too long, federal regulation has hurt rural ranchers and farmers most closely tied to those lands. They also argue that the federal government has poorly managed the properties, leading to overgrown forests prone to wildfires and hurting oil and gas development.
About 34 percent of the land in New Mexico is federally owned.
Larry Dwyer, a retired schoolteacher and lifelong Republican from Tijeras, was at Wednesday’s rally with his brother and wife. They hunt only on public land and chose to miss the first day of a Barbary sheep hunt near Carlsbad so they could participate.
“It worries me to death that some in my party are looking at transferring public lands, selling it,” Dwyer said. “They see no value in it.”
Utah Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced a U.S. House bill this week to dispose of “excess federal lands.” The bill mirrors past attempts to auction off parcels in Western states, including New Mexico, that have been identified by federal agencies as “suitable for disposal.” The interior secretary will determine which parcels qualify based on a decades-old report. Some of those lands could be turned over to states, tribes or local governments.
Another bill introduced by Chaffetz would turn over law enforcement on federal lands to local authorities.
At the state level, New Mexico Rep. Mary Kay Papen, a Democrat from Las Cruces, has introduced a bill to establish an endowment to fund early childhood education programs with revenues from 6.6 million acres of federal mineral rights on private land. The rights, now unleased, would be transferred to the state under Senate Bill 182, the brainchild of Republican State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn Jr.
The mineral rights transfer would require congressional approval. If Congress approved the move, the State Land Office would then lease the rights to extract oil, gas and other minerals. Most of the rights lie under private parcels on the eastern side of the state.
Even if state lawmakers don’t pass Papen’s bill, the mineral rights could still be transferred to the state under federal legislation planned by U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, Dunn said.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association supports SB 182. “I can’t imagine why sportsmen would be against this,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of the association, which counts ranchers and sportsmen among its members. “This would help the state in financing education.”
The association also wants the state to examine the possibility of transferring some federal lands to state management, she said. “We always feel that management closer to home is the best management.”
But sportsmen at the rally said federal public lands are a birthright of every American and something taxpayers have paid to preserve.
Conservation Voters of New Mexico are among those who oppose the bill. “We think the commissioner’s heart is in the right place, but in our opinion it is the wrong approach and wrong tool,” said Ben Shelton, the organization’s political director.
The group supports taking a little more of the investment revenues from an existing state land endowment, the $15 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund, to pay for an expansion of preschool programs. A resolution calling for voters to decide on a 1 percent increase in the endowment withdrawal is making its way through the Legislature.
Dunn opposes that measure. “Tapping the Land Grant Permanent Fund would set a dangerous precedent — it’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Dunn said in a statement. “It is irresponsible and anyone who supports it doesn’t understand how the fund is structured.”
Shelton said it would take years for the state to lease any transferred federal mineral rights and for the leases to bring in enough revenue to create a sizable payout for early childhood programs. The primary benefits, in the meantime, would be for drilling and mining companies holding the leases, he said. “It’s a giveaway of public resources hidden in children’s education clothing.”
People at Wednesday’s rally said transferring federal mineral rights under private land to the state also would lead to reduced public input and less oversight of drilling companies.
“I think we are really going to have to fight tooth and nail for public lands in the next four years,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen’s organization.
After the rally, Jason Amaro of Silver City said it was heartening to see so many people from different interests there, from environmentalists to sportsmen.
“We don’t often come together on issues,” said Amaro, Southwest coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a national sportsmen’s organization. “But when it comes to public lands, we are all on the same page. We may use the land in different way, but we all appreciate public lands.”