"People have told me it would be political suicide to try and solve the problems up there," Lyons said about the Whites Peak land exchanges.
by Peter St. Cyr
Commissioner of Public Lands Patrick Lyons invited elected officials, the media, and the public to his office, at the State Land Office, on Thursday, to discuss a controversial four-way land exchange that he previously agreed to make with private ranchers.
He had planned to use the meeting to discuss the benefits of the state land swaps, but spent most of his time being grilled on the details by state Reps. Thomas Garcia and Brian Egolf, and fending off hunters and guides who were upset the meeting was being held the same day as one of the exchanges was closed -- with Stanley Ranches.
Listen to Lyons' presentation and Q&A here, or by clicking the play button on the bar below.
Making the case
Lyons, who claims the deal will increase the value of state lands in the Whites Peaks area alone by over $12 million, used a slide presentation and maps to illustrate long standing issues such as checker boarded land plots, deteriorating public access roads, trespassing, poaching, and boundary distinctions, to try and make his case.
He told the crowd of about 50 people he intended to solve problems that have existed in the region for decades and "four commissioners before me."
Sensing the unhappiness of hunters and some Democrat leaders, Lyons told this reporter before the public meeting, "people have told me it would be political suicide to try and solve the problems up there."
His advisors may have been right.
Lyons did not get a warm reception from most people in the crowd, which included Mike Anaya and Sandy Jones -- both Democrat primary candidates seeking to succeed Lyons, the only Republican state office holder.
One hunter, Angelo Archuleta, from Mora, accused Lyons of putting the private landowners' interests over the interests of northern New Mexico's hunting community.
Listen to Archuleta confront Lyons, who call's him a "wise ass", at 51 minutes into the audio tape. Later, after Archuleta insisted on expressing his opinion on the swaps out of turn, Lyons told the crowd, "this is why we don't have public meetings in Mora," and requested staffers call the police. Archuleta was allowed to stay after Rep. Garcia told Lyons that he had yielded the floor to Archuleta and that no threats had been made.
Rattlesnakes, antelope, and Bambi...
Professional outdoor guide Alberto Goke, who appeared disgusted with the Stanley Ranch deal being closed without public meetings, told the crowd that the only thing they'll find on lands being traded with Express UU Bar Ranches, will be rattlesnakes and antelope. He claimed all the prized bull-elk will be behind fences and fears ranchers will begin charging thousands for private hunts saying, "we'll be left with Bambi."
Lyons disagreed, and said none of the ranchers have plans to build fences big enough to trap the preferred bull elks on the private lands.
Lyons appeared confident when he claimed wildlife will migrate to water at ponds the state will acquire in the deals.
“We're getting prime elk hunting land," Lyons said. “They'll be at water during hunting season, and that's what we're getting,” Lyons said specifically mentioning archery season.
'It's turned into a political free-for all'
Rep. Egolf, who grilled Lyons about the value to beneficiaries, told Lyons he didn't think the land should be exchanged because some landowners have complained about trespassers and vandalism.
He wants Lyons to leave enforcement to the sheriff and park rangers, reminding Lyons that his job "is to maximize revenue for education -- the primary beneficiaries of state trust lands."
But Lyons said that the beneficiaries he's talked to support the exchanges and that revenues from the Game and Fish Department have doubled during his seven years in office.
In fact, Lyons said by eliminating most of the checker boarding the value of the land will be increased and allow him to make more money for New Mexico off grazing leases and through camping, hunting, recreation and other activities.
But Egolf said, after reviewing the financial summaries, it appeared there would only be a net increase of $1,700 from new grazing leases, and offered to split the amount with Rep. Garcia if it would halt the remaining three deals with UU Bar, Galloway, and CS Ranches.
Meanwhile, two representatives with the state's attorney general's office, who have been investigating the land appraisals and other aspects of the deals, said that once the deals have closed they may be forced "into litigation" and are concerned about the "lack of transparency in the deal."
Lyons said that there has been no secrecy surrounding the swaps, and State Land Office Attorney Robert Stranahan told the group that his office has "always been open for anyone who wanted to come and ask questions."
For now, both the governor and attorney general want the three exchanges, which have still not closed to be halted, but a spokesperson for Lyons' said they will continue as planned.
At the end of the meeting, Kristin Haase told a Journal North reporter, “It's turning into a political free-for-all." She said, “it's disappointing they don't see the merits of the exchange.”
Lyons insists the remaining three deals will move forward on their merits.
In the meantime, he's preparing to campaign for a seat on the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.