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New Mexico Public Lands Tied Up in Suspended BLM Leases

Not all the land controlled by the BLM in New Mexico is for recreation. Thousands of acres have been tied up in long-term oil and gas leases. (Bureau of Land Management)

December 16, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. - The Bureau of Land Management is allowing thousands of acres of public land in Western states, including New Mexico, to sit idle as unused oil and gas leases. According to a new report, it's costing taxpayers millions of dollars in rentals and royalties.

The Wilderness Society found suspended leases on more than 3 million acres of public land across the West, including almost 80,000 in New Mexico, that currently are not benefiting the public. Report coauthor Nada Culver, the society's director for agency policy, said loopholes in the lease-suspension program have cost about $80 million in rental fees alone.

"While those leases are in suspension, the operators are not required to pay rent," she said. "They don't pay royalties because they're not producing oil and gas. And of major concern to The Wilderness Society, the BLM won't manage the land for any other use."

According to the report, companies acquire leases but don't develop them, then request suspensions from the BLM that can last for decades. Culver said that if the leases were allowed to expire, the land could be developed for solar or wind power, managed for conservation or used for recreation.

Culver said taxpayers have lost more than $1.3 million on leases in New Mexico that were suspended before 1980.

"What we really noticed in New Mexico was, New Mexico has some of the oldest suspensions," she said. "So, dozens and dozens of leases that date back to the '60s and '70s. And yet, a whole bunch of new lease suspensions have been applied for and granted in the last five years."

The report concluded that the BLM should conduct a thorough review of existing long-term suspended leases. The Wilderness Society also called on the Government Accountability Office to launch its own investigation and recommend improvements to the lease-suspension system.

The report is online at wilderness.org.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - NM

- See more at: www.publicnewsservice.org

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Land and Water Conservation Fund expires; fight looms in Congress

Published October 28, 2015

By Michael Coleman / Journal Washington Bureau
Published: Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 at 2:55pm
Updated: Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 at 8:57pm

WASHINGTON – New Mexico’s Democratic lawmakers are calling for renewal of the 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund after its expiration last week, while the delegation’s lone Republican says the program needs to be revamped.

The fund, which expired last Wednesday, is financed with royalties paid by energy companies that drill for publicly owned oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf. The money – about $900 million last year – is used largely to acquire private land within the borders of national parks, forests and wildlife refuges and other protected sites.

The program’s authorization expired Sept. 30 after some Republicans called for changes in the way the money is disbursed, but funding for it and other government programs will continue until at least Dec. 11 under a stopgap federal spending bill approved by Congress last week.

New Mexico has received roughly $261 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund since its inception for acquisition of lands across the state, including at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument and Lincoln National Forest.

“For more than 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped protect New Mexico’s precious land and water resources that are a part of our heritage and culture,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján. D-N.M. “As one of our most successful conservation and recreation programs, (the fund) has also strengthened our economy and helped create jobs in our communities by supporting public access to outdoor recreation that attracts visitors from near and far.”

But while most Democrats in Congress support the fund’s reauthorization, some Republicans – including Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico – contend the money could be spent better elsewhere instead of acquiring more land for the federal government. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has held up legislation to reauthorize the program.

“The federal government cannot maintain the land it already owns,” Pearce said. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund was created to assist states in management of lands for recreational use. Over the last couple of decades, the fund has been more focused on purchasing more land, instead of managing the land it already has under conservation. Reauthorization of the LWCF must return the program to its intended purpose, to benefit state recreational and conservation uses.”

Democrats, including those in New Mexico’s congressional delegation, contend the money is used for open spaces that generations can treasure — and that help bring tax dollars into the Treasury.

“The LWCF is based on a simple idea – use revenue from developing one natural resource for preserving public lands and waters for all to enjoy,” said Sen. Tom Udall. “In its 50 years, the LWCF has created urban parks like Valle de Oro and Petroglyph National Monument and conserved wild backcountry across New Mexico. These parks and open spaces support countless jobs and improve our quality of life.”

But others say the fund dedicates too much money to land acquisitions and not enough to local communities. Of the $16.8 billion appropriated from the fund in its 50 years, 62 percent has been allocated to federal land acquisition, 25 percent to a state grant program and 13 percent to other uses, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced legislation this year to reauthorize the conservation fund, as well as set aside 1.5 percent of its revenue every year to provide and ensure access to millions of acres of national public lands that the public currently cannot reach.

A coalition of New Mexico hunters, anglers and other users of public lands issued a statement last week urging the fund’s reauthorization.

“For 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has benefited our nation in a myriad of ways, from improvements in our national forests to boat ramps, shooting ranges, municipal parks and ballfields,” said Max Trujillo, sportsman coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “We can only hope that as Congress works toward a lasting budget agreement in December they will honor the bipartisan background of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and make this valuable program permanent.”
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The State Game Commission will make another important decision about the future of wild creatures in New Mexico.

September 30, 2015

The New Mexican

The State Game Commission will make another important decision today about the future of wild creatures in New Mexico.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials want to release up to 10 raised-in-captivity Mexican gray wolves, a move that has been rejected by the Department of Game and Fish. That decision has been appealed to the State Game Commission, which will be deciding the matter today at a meeting in Albuquerque. (The meeting, at Embassy Suites, 1000 Woodward Place NE, begins at 9 a.m., but wolf enthusiasts plan to rally at 8 a.m.)

Releasing more wolves into the wild is essential in adding genetic diversity to the wild population. The department should have allowed the release, and the commissioners should overturn the initial decision. That likely won’t happen, given the commission’s recent spate of decisions against carnivores.

Commissioners’ decisions have made it easier to hunt and kill cougars and bears. They denied a permit to Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch to aid in the federal wolf recovery program by providing pen space — a reversal of 17 years of a program that worked. This clearly is a Game Commission hostile to wild animals.

Should the commission not allow the release of additional wolves, we trust that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bosses will use the Endangered Species Act to force New Mexico’s hand. Under federal law, the United States is charged with protecting the endangered wolves and striving to ensure their survival. Only 110 Mexican gray wolves are believed to be roaming in our state and neighboring Arizona.

For the wolves to thrive, a more diverse DNA is necessary. Releasing these wolves — born in captivity but ready to take to the wilderness — is essential to the survival of a species. New Mexico is not alone in trying to block the release of these wolves; Arizona also is dragging its feet.

Such short-sightedness on the state level must be fought by aggressive federal action. If the states won’t do the right thing by wolves, the federal government must act, using its authority under the Endangered Species Act. Humans pushed the wolf to extinction. By acting wisely, humans can restore the wolf to its rightful place. Release the wolves, with or without state approval.

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