By Peter St. Cyr
The state’s attorney general’s office, which has been investigating a series of proposed land exchanges, in the Whites Peak area, between private ranchers and the NM State Land Office, has notified Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons that it has found “significant defects” in the land appraisals being used to support the swaps.
In this letter (written just two days before Christmas), Chief Deputy Attorney General Albert Lama requests none of the land deals proceed until “we can verify that adequate appraisals have been done.”
Quoting the Enabling Act, which governs the management and disposition of New Mexico State Trust Lands, Lama points out that the lands must “be appraised at their true value prior to any sale or disposition,” and that after consultation with an independent appraiser the attorney general’s office has identified problems which “appear to run afoul of the Uniform Standard of Appraisal Practice,” including assumptions the land office’s appraiser made.
And the state land office now admits the appraisals done by John T. Widdoss, for the land office, were paid for by the ranchers who are submitting bids, but would not say that alone is a conflict.
Lama indicates the AG’s independent appraiser has determined Widdoss’ “key” assumptions “lacks any substantiation,” and so on “this basis alone, the appraisal lacks sufficient data to support its conclusion.”
Under the proposed Express UU Bar Ranches, LLC swap, which the independent appraiser uses as his example, the ranch would receive New Mexico trust land appraised at nearly $5.5 million, which is more than twice the $2.4 million appraised value of the land the ranch would turn over to the state.
Additionally, Lama wrote “the revenue-generating potential of the property the state would receive may be significantly less than the revenue-generating potential of the land the state is offering.”
But Lyons disagrees. In fact, he wrote a letter to sportsmen, in November, stating the private acreage involved in the exchange "may be fewer in number, but they have a higher appraised value and a higher earning potential than the current trust land."
"In the interest of earning the highest possible revenue for the trust this exchange is highly advantageous," Lyons wrote. "It will consolidate trust land holdings to one large parcel of land rather than a checkerboard of holdings dispersed with private land. This will be more manageable than dispersed land and more profitable as a larger piece has more applicable uses. This exchange will improve land management capabilities for a healthy and productive ecosystem that not only improves hunting opportunities, but the overall health and vigor of the forest."‘This is more of a sale than it is a swap’
In his letter, Lama indicates the land swap transaction is more like “a hybrid of a sale and exchange, though the majority of this transaction would be a sale."
“If this is the case, we have serious concerns about the propriety of the disposition of state trust lands in this manner,” Lama wrote.
And it’s the “additional cash bonus” being offered by UU Bar’s owners that has raised the ire of State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who said that “raises serious concerns about the propriety of the disposition of State Trust Lands in this manner.”
“More than half of the value is being paid by UU Bar in cash, which means this is more of a sale than it is a swap, and the procedures that are required for a land sale were not followed,” Egolf said.
While the land office did not respond to our inquiries about the letter or John T. Widdoss’ appraisals, it’s chief counsel Robert Stranahan told the Associated Press he’s “happy to stand behind his work,” and said “some concerns were misunderstandings of the process.”
“At the end of the day, the appraised value we are getting is more than we are giving up,” he told the AP.
Stranahan said a meeting is scheduled for next Thursday to discuss the appraisals.
While the state land office did not return our request for an interview, we did receive a statement from Gov. Bill Richardson who has consistently stated he does not want the deals to be closed.
“With all of the unanswered questions about the proposed White’s Peak land swaps, the State Land Office should not close the deals,” Richardson is quoted. “I remain very concerned about the potential loss of prime public hunting and other outdoor opportunities as well as the secretive process used to determine the terms and comparable valuation of the exchange.”
Egolf, who requested both the attorney general and state auditor, investigate the land swaps, says Lama’s letter is a good first step.
“Hopefully the next step the land commissioner takes is to suspend these transactions until the attorney general and the legislature are satisfied that the transactions are in the best interest of the beneficiaries,” Egolf said.
The state auditor is expected to provide the results of his office’s investigation before the start of the legislative session on January 19th.
Gov. Bill Richardson expressed concern last month, saying the plan “would mean a net loss to the state of almost 4,000 acres of alpine meadows and pristine forest.” At the time Richardson said he’d heard from citizens, state lawmakers and New Mexico’s congressional delegation about the deal.
Egolf said he hopes the attorney general is able to persuade the land commissioner “to do the right thing” and “suspend these deals.”
“Let’s make sure all the parties, including the attorney general and the legislature have a chance to really understand what this deal is all about, to make sure that its being done properly, and to make sure it’s the best interests of the beneficiaries of the state trust,” Egolf said.
State Trust Land Access vs Hunting Opportunities
Just before Thanksgiving, two weeks before the first bid was accepted from Stanley Ranches, Lyons told 770KKOB News that the land swap includes four different exchanges, and said his detractors shouldn’t analyze just one. He insisted the four deals need to be looked at as a group.
“One thing, 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.”
Lyons has said the exchanges in the White Peak area would reduce conflicts among landowners, sportsmen and the state by better consolidating trust land and cited cited trespassing and vandalism as a reason it’s working with ranchers on the exchange.
That has sportsmen groups and the NM Wildlife Federation “outraged,” and the NMWF is asking its supporters to write letters to Lyons urging him to stop the deals because “they clearly hurt hunting deals.”
“They also will be bad for the public at large and for public schools that earn income from state lands,” the NMWF website states. “The State Land Office has repeatedly said the trades are necessary to resolve conflicts between the public and private landowners in the Whites Peak area, but has never said how the trade will benefit public education, which is its primary mission.”
NMWF claims the public will lose some 3,700 acres of state trust land if the first two trades go through.
“Even worse for sportsmen, the lands lost are much higher quality in habitat, featuring ponderosa pines, small lakes and streams and abundant wildlife,” the website claims. ”A substantial portion of the lands the state would receive in return from these trades would be in a single parcel of treeless grazing land strung out along State Highway 120.”
Lyons 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.”
Last May, Lyons announced that he’ll run for a seat on the Public Regulation Commission next year, when term limits oust him from his current job at the State Land Office.