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Governor signs bill creating Outdoor Recreation Division to promote New Mexico activities

By Robert Nott | Santa Fe New Mexican
April 2, 2019

New Mexico, a state that has long promoted its natural wonders, will soon have a new office of outdoor recreation, though it will open with a much smaller budget than anticipated — just $200,000, a big drop from the $1.5 million lawmakers initially requested.

On Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 462, authorizing the creation of the Outdoor Recreation Division within the state’s Economic Development Department, effective July 1.

The new office will focus on supporting businesses related to outdoor recreation, marketing the state’s camping, hiking, fishing and hunting offerings, among other activities, and improving roads and trails tied to outdoor experiences.

In addition to the $200,000 to employ a director and office manager, the bill also provides $100,000 to the Youth Conservation Corps to pay for infrastructure and trail projects. Another $100,000 was allocated from a separate bill for a grant program so low-income children can participate in outdoor programs.

The initiative was backed by several organizations and advocates for hunting, fishing and camping.

“Fantastic idea,” said Kerrie Cox Romero, executive director of the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, which represents about 260 licensed hunting, fishing and camping outfitters in the state. The new agency, she said, will help “put more resources into helping small-business owners who are already established and finding ways to break down barriers to entry currently in existence on some public lands.”

Valerie Weiss, who with her husband Lee runs Fishtail Ranch Outfitters in Chama, agreed. “It recognizes the tremendous contribution that our outdoor recreation industry plays as part of our tourism efforts,” she said. “I think this law will help boost tourism and give those outdoors businesses a voice in how we can better promote these industries.”

“This is all about educating the world about all of the gems we have here in the state of New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference to commemorate the event at Hyde Memorial State Park near Santa Fe.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, one of the sponsors of the bill, said he wasn’t disappointed in the reduced funding because the division can draw on staff members and resources from the Economic Development Department and the New Mexico Tourism Department.

He and the governor said additional funding could be allocated in the future.

The governor and some state lawmakers see the action as a way to help diversify the state’s economy by attracting tourists, state residents and people who don’t normally take part in outdoor activities to visit New Mexico’s state parks, rivers, forests and deserts.

The Outdoor Industry Association, a trade organization, says that in New Mexico the sector supports 99,000 jobs, creates nearly $10 billion in consumer spending every year and contributes $623 million in state and local tax revenue.

The state Department of Game and Fish reports there are 160,000 anglers who fish in New Mexico, spending $268 million, and 87,600 hunters, who spend $345 million, on their activities annually.

Other states, such as Colorado, Utah and Montana, have already created offices of outdoor recreation. Lujan Grisham said Colorado benefits from some $70 billion in consumer spending tied to the industry.

“Colorado, get out of our way, because we’re coming for you,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Tribes urge US to put off oil, gas leases near sacred sites

By Susan Montoya Bryan | Associated Press
March 27, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Tribal leaders are calling on U.S. land managers to put off an upcoming oil and gas lease sale, the latest in an ongoing battle over energy development in a region that’s home to a national park and other sites of cultural and historical significance.

The tribes say the federal government is obligated to follow environmental and historic preservation laws when considering whether to allow for oil and gas exploration in northwestern New Mexico. They’re concerned about more than two dozen parcels that will be up for bid Thursday.

The massive stone structures that make up Chaco Culture National Historical Park and other sites scattered beyond the park’s boundaries are important to Native Americans from around the Southwest and archaeologists who have spent decades trying to unravel the mysteries of the centuries-old gathering spot.

In asking the Bureau of Land Management to defer the lease sale, the All Pueblo Council of Governors renewed its call for formal protections to be included in a plan being drafted by that agency that will govern future development throughout the San Juan Basin.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo on Wednesday accused the agency of doing little to identify “critical and fragile cultural properties” in the basin, which spans much of northwestern New Mexico and parts of southwestern Colorado.

Vallo said the lease sales are “inconsistent with the goal of the field office to complete a holistic plan for energy development while acting as stewards of that sacred landscape.”

The agency is planning to go forward with the sale, and agency spokeswoman Cathy Garber said a draft of the amended management plan is expected within the next few months.

In recent years, land managers have declined oil and gas exploration on land within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius of the park, creating somewhat of an informal buffer. In early 2018, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke halted a lease sale over cultural concerns after hundreds of people protested.

In February, the agency again decided to withdraw several parcels that had been nominated by the industry for inclusion in the sale.

The battle over energy development around Chaco, which is bordered by the Navajo Nation and a checkboard of state and federal land, has been simmering for years. Officials with the Obama administration and Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation visited the region in 2015 in hopes of brokering a way forward for the tribes and energy companies.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs then began working together on revamping the resource management plan. The partnership was meant to ensure tribes would be consulted and that scientific and archaeological analysis would be done to guarantee cultural sensitivity.

“Until this area is permanently protected, we are living in a state of uncertainty and doubt as the BLM prepares its plan amendment,” said Michael Chavarria, the governor of Santa Clara Pueblo. “Our cultural sites and ancestral homelands are put in danger every time BLM engages in these sales because it encourages haphazard development.”

A UNESCO world heritage site, Chaco park includes the remains of kivas and other features of a ceremonial and economic hub that dates back centuries. Archaeologists believe the site offered a religious or ritualistic experience as many of the structures are aligned with celestial events, such as the summer solstice.

This article originally appeared in the Associated Press.

State raises outdoor recreation to next level

By Dan Boyd | Albuquerque Journal
April 2, 2019

SANTA FE — With an approaching deadline for acting on most bills passed during this year’s 60-day legislative session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday signed off on a bill that will create a new outdoor recreation division within an existing New Mexico state agency.

The Democratic governor attended a ceremonial bill signing at Hyde Memorial State Park outside Santa Fe and described the legislation as a first step toward bolstering the state’s outdoor recreation economy.

“Colorado, get out of our way because we’re coming for you,” Lujan Grisham said, drawing cheers from a crowd that included state lawmakers, Cabinet secretaries and representatives from several environmental groups.

A number of other Western states — including Utah, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming — have in recent years created similar state government offices that vary in size and scope.

But Lujan Grisham has argued New Mexico has just as much — if not more — to offer outdoor enthusiasts than some of its neighbors, while also saying that creating a similar office here could convince more young adults to move to the state.

The governor, who took office in January, even rode her bike to the Roundhouse from the Governor’s Mansion earlier this year to highlight the issue.

The outdoor recreation legislation that passed both chambers of the Legislature with bipartisan support during the just-completed session, Senate Bill 462, calls for the new division to be established within the state Economic Development Department. The bill does not include an appropriation, but backers said Monday some funding for it is included in a $7 billion budget plan that Lujan Grisham has yet to sign.

The proposal will also create an “outdoor equity grant program” aimed at helping low-income families in New Mexico enjoy skiing, camping and other outdoor pursuits.

The idea of establishing an outdoor recreation division was opposed by the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican who claimed creating a new state office would be redundant given the efforts of several existing state departments.

But backers said Monday the bill will place a newfound emphasis on outdoor recreation — for New Mexicans and out-of-state tourists alike.

“This is one of those issues that connects all of New Mexico,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who was one of the bill’s sponsors.

New Mexico’s outdoor recreation sector already generates an estimated $9.9 billion in annual consumer spending and an estimated 99,000 jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

Overall, New Mexico contains 9 million acres of national forest land and roughly 13 million acres of land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The state is home to multiple ski areas and bike races and numerous hiking trails.

This article originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

New Mexico, let's celebrate wilderness together

By Mark Allison, Executive Director, New Mexico Wild
March 31, 2019 | Las Cruces Sun-News

On March 12, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act was signed into law. This package of public lands legislation established 13 new wilderness areas and expanded another in New Mexico totaling approximately 272,586 acres. It’s not every day — or even every decade — that we get to celebrate something like this. This represents the most new acreage of wilderness designated in New Mexico since 1980. (Think: the introduction of the fax machine, Pac-Man, "The Empire Strikes Back" and ABBA.)

Wilderness area designation is the conservation gold standard and the highest level of protection for federal public lands. It preserves access for traditional uses like hunting, fishing, hiking and camping. It protects cultural resources and sacred sites. It literally takes an act of Congress to create “Big W” Wilderness. Not an easy thing to do at any time, let alone in today’s political environment.

Yet, this legislation passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 92-8 and the House by a count of 363-62. This is where people found literal and figurative common ground, perhaps providing us with a model for a path forward for other important issues.

These designations bring the total amount of protected wilderness in New Mexico to approximately 2.5 percent of our total land area. But this isn’t really about the number of acres — it’s about these very particular wild and special places that are now protected from roads, mineral extraction and development. Not just today but for forever.

The new areas in the south boast sky island mountains, native Chihuahuan Desert grasslands, caves, unique lava flows, limestone cliffs and winding canyons. The iconic Organ Mountains are now permanently protected, but also less well-known areas that are perhaps even more ecologically important.

This is the story of New Mexicans from every walk of life working shoulder-to-shoulder for years, building a groundswell of support based on their love of these places that, simply, respectfully, demanded action. Coalitions of pueblos and tribes, land grant heirs, acequia parciantes, ranchers, small business owners, communities of faith, hunters, anglers and conservationists worked for more than a decade to get here. It was noticed — those in DC referred to these collaborative efforts as a “national model.”

At the same time, this couldn’t have happened without the farsightedness and perseverance of our federal congressional delegation. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich cosponsored bills to protect these areas. Legislation to safeguard wilderness in Doña Ana and Taos counties was first introduced by former Sen. Jeff Bingaman in 2009. Assistant Speaker Luján sponsored the Taos County companion legislation in the House in the last congress (with former representative and current governor Michelle Lujan Grisham cosponsoring) and new Reps. Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small supported the package bill.

Altogether, this legislation created ten new wilderness areas in Doña Ana County and two new wilderness areas in Taos County. It also created the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area and expanded the existing Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area, both near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The legislation also reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has provided funding for public lands and open spaces in all 33 New Mexico counties since its creation.

Thanks to everyone who played roles large and small and to those who came before us with the vision that now is reality. Raise a glass — you deserve it. To really appreciate the beauty and wildness of these places, I encourage you to visit and experience them yourself. To learn more, you can go to www.nmwild.org.

This guest column originally appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News.