by Peter St. Cyr
Tuesday is the the final day to submit a bid at the State Land Office to acquire thousands of state land near Whites Peak in Northern New Mexico.
“We’re losing 4,000 acres of prime hunting and fishing land in exchange for scrub brush along a desolate highway,” State Rep. Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) said. “It’s not a fair trade to give up timber, wooded areas and incredible water resources on the mesa top. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The first-term representative believes the only way to stop a deal planned by New Mexico State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons and two private ranchers is for the state public schools (which are the beneficiaries of state lands) to file a lawsuit.
Egolf told us he believes the deal between Express UU Bar Ranches, LLC, Stanley Ranches, and the state land office has been in the works for months, if not years.
So on Friday, Egolf grilled Lyons, at a Legislative Finance Committee hearing in Santa Fe, about the land office’s plan with the ranchers.
“There has been no public process up to this point,” Egolf said. “It has all been done behind closed doors which is the opposite of the way we need to be doing things with our public lands.”
Land Commissioner Pat Lyons
Lyons told 770KKOB News that the land swap includes four different exchanges and his detractors shouldn’t analyze just one. He insists the four land swaps need to be looked at as a group.
“It’s been very controversial area for about 50 years because it’s all checker boarded,” Lyons said. “It has private land mingled in with state land, and state land mingled in with private land. So it’s always been a contention of private property rights versus access.”
The land commissioner said after the deal is completed “it’s going to be continuous acres of 25,000 acres on one side and 18,000 acres on the other side with the state land being in the middle and that way we’ll know where the definite boundaries are.”
Still, Egolf wants to know how the deal helps public school children. At the hearing, Egolf asked Lyons to provide the benefits.
“I’m very sad to say that I learned that he can present no justification whatsoever for doing this land transfer,” Egolf said. “I asked him explicitly -- ‘how does this land transfer benefit the school children of the State of New Mexico?’ -- and he couldn’t answer the question.”
But, Lyons is defending the deal, which he said has been advertised, as required by law, for 10-days.
“The state trust always has to receive benefits,” Lyons said. “We make at least 10%. We only exchange surface for surface. We always keep our subsurface, because we don’t know what the value of the mineral is underneath there. ”
The land commissioner, who is term-limited, and is not running for re-election in 2010, also insists the land office benefits on the appraised value of each exchange.
Is the deal really a win-win?
“The major thing about it is we’re going to improve the wildlife habitat so much up there. And it’s going to improve the quality of the hunting up there,” Lyons said. “We’re going to close some roads that are eroded that aren’t good for the environment. At the same time we’re going to try to get one good all-weather road in there for all familes to have access. It’s a win-win situation.”
But it’s hunting and fishing that have Gov. Bill Richardson and Egolf concerned. They fear once fences and gates are put up the ranchers will be “in a great position to open private hunting camp with pristine land.”
“Once its private land the regular folks can’t hunt on it anymore, because it’s not public property, so UU Bar and Stanley Ranches will be able to fence this land off and keep people out,” Egolf said. “People from the North who traditionally have used this as prime hunting and fishing land they’re not going to be able to go there anymore. White Peaks is not some anonymous random piece of property. This is an important area culturally for the Northern part of the state.”
The issue of access began to emerged six years ago when the ranchers from Oklahoma put up a barrier — which prevented sportsman from crossing through the ranch on a public road to access the state lands.
After litigation in 2003, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against UU Bar and the road was reopened.
“You take land people have enjoyed for generations and because one person decides it’s a good idea it’s going to be gone forever,” Egolf said. “The governor and legislature can’t do things like that. We’ve got constituents to answer to and we’ve got public meeting requirements and all these things to make sure that there’s huge amount of public input to every decision we make. At the land office it’s the opposite. They’re doing everything they can to keep it secret.”
Lyons claims nothing was done in secret and said public comment remains open until 4pm on Tuesday.
“The bid process closes Tuesday for one of the first part of the exchange. The second one is on December 8th, and the third and fourth haven’t been advertised yet, so we don’t even have a bid in the office yet," Lyons said. "They don’t even come in until the last day. When the come in we’ll evaluate all of them and see what’s in the best interest of the trust and then we’ll go from there.”
More public hearings proposed for land deals
But Egolf, who couldn’t find any maps on the land office’s website finally received maps and other documents after filing an inspection of public records request, doesn’t believe the process has been open at all.
In fact, he believes the land office “wanted as little attention as possible because they know that this is a bad deal for New Mexico.”
“You would expect if that’s true they wouldn’t know every inch of property that they are swapping for because they haven’t received a bid yet, but they have this map that is incredibly detailed that shows not only all the land the state land office has put up, it also shows all the land they are anticipating getting and each parcel that they expect to get has been appraised and measured. So how do they know what’s coming if they haven’t gotten the bid yet?” Egolf asked.
Now Egolf is proposing more oversight, review and public hearings on state land exchanges.
“The State Land office is the most powerful office you’ve never heard of,” Egolf said. “He’s got no oversight, no review, and no public process. So as long as he publishes a notice in a newspaper that he wants to dispose of this property he can sell it to anybody he wants to for any price that he thinks is appropriate. He doesn’t have to show any analysis about what makes this a good deal for the school kids of New Mexico.”
Egolf said he’s considering introducing legislation to make future land deals follow the same open meeting rules that the government agencies and the legislature follow.
“I will be pursuing legislation to require that these land swaps and distributions and distributions of public land be done after public hearings and after a proper analysis of the economics of these kinds of swaps,” Egolf said. “I believe everything can be done through legislation. I don’t think you need a change in the constitution to add to some oversight to the process.”
For now, Egolf believes the only way to stop the proposed land deal is to file suit.
“Public scrutiny is critical in this process. He [Lyons] needs to understand that people are paying attention,” Egolf said. “hopefully we won’t have these kinds of bad deals done in the future.”