By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – It’s not a sagebrush rebellion, but it’s close.
Five western states — Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — have set up legislative studies or task forces to consider transferring immense tracts of federal land to the control of state governments.
And there’s talk of exploring the issue here in New Mexico, too.
But critics, especially environmentalists, scoff at the idea.
As in all states west of the Rockies, New Mexico has huge tracts under the control of the U.S. government. More than 40 percent of New Mexico is federally owned.
Supporters of the plan claim the federal government has done a lousy job managing the land and point to the explosion of wildfires they say have been made worse by federal land policy. They also say the chronic federal budget deficits and repeated trips to the fiscal cliff will only make things worse.
Plus, advocates say, transferring public lands to states could create a big economic boom.
A study from an economist in Wyoming estimated transferring the land from the feds to the state of New Mexico would lead to the creation of between $600 million and $1 billion in additional tax money simply through additional jobs and production in the oil and natural gas industries.
But critics say the state budget already is cash-strapped and adding the responsibilities of having New Mexico oversee huge swaths of land is unrealistic.
“I think the state is probably in over its head, acquiring federal land and managing it,” Horning said.
A 2012 fiscal impact report estimated it would cost New Mexico $180 million a year to manage the lands, Herrell said.
“But if that’s the case, and we knew we could generate $400 million-$500 million (per year), we’d clearly have enough money to manage the lands and put money back into the schools, our services and some of the programs we need to take of in the state,” she said.
Herrell said the proposal for New Mexico would affect U.S. Forest Service land and the Bureau of Land Management, but would not touch designated wilderness areas, national and state parks, Indian reservations or property controlled by the Department of Defense, such as the White Sands Missile Range, which is operated by the U.S. Army.
Paul Gessing, the president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Albuquerque, said opening federal land to resource development “is not and should not be an open invitation to pillage the land.”
“Rather, oil and gas can be accessed in an environmentally sensitive manner while some of those revenues could be used in prevent forest fires, improve wildlife habitat, and allow the public to access and recreate on those lands in ways that are not currently possible,” Gessing said.
“I don’t think we should be giving away public lands,” Horning said. “I think it’s a large core of our identity in the West to have large, open spaces that are held in trust for all Americans.”
Western states have had an uneasy relationship with the feds and that relationship flared earlier this year when the Obama administration seized millions from states in energy and mineral royalties from development on federal lands in those respective states, citing sequestration. Wyoming ($53 million) and New Mexico ($26 million) where the hardest hit.
Western governors howled and after U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, introduced legislation on Capitol Hill challenging the Obama administration’s authority to take the money in the first place, the administration reversed itself and is returning the money.
“This problem should never have arisen as the money rightly belongs to the people of New Mexico,” Gessing wrote in a paper advocating the transfer.
“Right now New Mexico is giving 50 percent of the (mineral and energy royalties on federal land) to the federal government,” Herrell said. “In fact, it’s more than 50 percent because we’re paying a small management fee.”
But another issue to consider is whether it’s legal for states to transfer the land from the federal government.
The Enabling Act of 1910 that allowed New Mexico and Arizona admitted into the Union contains language deferring public land issues to the federal government.
The act states “that the people inhabiting said proposed state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated and ungranted public lands lying within the boundaries thereof.”
Citing similar language, an environmental group calls a potential move in Utah, “almost certainly unconstitutional.” In a statement, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said supporters of public land transfers are “prepared to waste millions of taxpayer dollars in their quixotic quest to send the federal government ‘a message.’ ”
But Herrell counters by saying, “We can open up some opportunities for gas and oil and get out from under the burden of heavy regulations.”
Last year, Herrell co-sponsored a bill to explore transferring public lands to the state, working on bi-partisan legislation with Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, to set up a task force. The bill made it through one committee, but withered on the vine in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Herrell said she plans on introducing the bill again in January and emphasized the legislation would not involve a land transfer, but, instead, set up a task force to explore the issue.
“Let’s have that dialogue,” she said. “Do the risks outweigh the rewards for the state of New Mexico? Clearly, there’s a revenue benefit but at the end of the day, can we do it? I think, yes. I think it’s worth looking into.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski