Thursday, March 4, 2010

Land office lawyers call AG's claims ludicrous

Attorneys representing the State Land Office say because Land Commissioner Pat Lyons is granted ”complete control over the care, control, and disposition of state trust lands,” the Supreme Court should reject Attorney General Gary King’s premise that four controversial land swaps at Whites Peak were predetermined “shams.”

A month ago, the Supreme Court granted an emergency petition filed by King that effectively halted those swaps. Now justices will have to decide if Lyons’ proposals violate any laws or if they may continue as planned.

Land Office Chief Legal Counsel Robert Stranahan, who directed a team of contract attorneys and filed the Land Office’s response with the court last week, told us that the “SLO is not a public auction house,” and that “the AG is “100 percent wrong on the law.”

“The Attorney General’s Office already has an opinion that says we can do land exchanges,” Stranahan said, referring to an opinion issued by former Attorney General Tom Udall.

“The commissioner is the one that decides what’s in the best interest of the trust – he has a fiduciary duty to the trust, and that’s what he’s exercising,” Stranahan said.

Stranahan said the commissioner’s authority is laid out in the state’s constitution, and “to suggest that we would need somehow to seek some other kind of guidance on how to exercise that authority is just improper.”

The Land Office has proposed trading about 11,000 acres of trust land around Whites Peak for about 9,600 acres of private land in an effort to consolidate the checkerboard area north of Ocate. The office says it is trying to clearly define state and private holdings and help eliminate problems with trespassing and littering on private lands.

Stranahan rejects the AG’s assertion that the bids were steered to predetermined parties.

“To suggest that we had negotiations with private parties is absolutely true. You bet we did. It’s completely within the province of the commissioner to do that,” Stranahan said. “If we are trying to fix this issue we need to go with the people who would potentially be bidders, but that doesn’t preclude someone else from bidding.”

He claims the SLO doesn’t even need to conduct a public auction if the end result of an exchange increases the value of the land.

‘Bidding process was flawed’

Former game commissioner Oscar Simpson, who now works as a campaign coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, disagrees.

He told us at a game commission meeting in Santa Fe last week “the bidding process needs to start over.” Simpson is upset because, he said, he doesn’t believe the SLO’s bid process was transparent or fair.

“It was a flawed process,” Simpson said. “The attorney general quite plainly asked the court to intervene because of the process in which the State Land Office proceeded.”

Families in the area, hunters and sportsmen groups have protested the deals. They claim Lyons is giving away pristine wilderness area that has been hunted by generations of New Mexico families, and they fear the land will be closed off to them and the public by the private ranchers.

“Every aspect of what they did to inform the public and the game commission was devious,” Simpson said. “The attorney general looked at all the records and said it wasn’t a public process – that it was an inside deal. By the time anyone else found out it was too late.”

He told us he thinks Lyons is “trying to get these land swaps pushed through” because it’s his final year in the land office.

“This is his last-ditch effort to appease his friends and political contributors,” Simpson said. “He’s certainly giving private ranchers a primo deal as far as big game parks, ranches and their land.”

'The public hasn't really benefited'

Simpson said he thinks state laws that regulate land exchanges are antiquated, and the “process of public auctions has basically been prostituted.”

“In the past, we’ve lost about four or five million acres of state land. A lot of this has been under the cover, and the public hasn’t really benefited – especially all the trustees and beneficiaries.”

Hunting guide Albert Goake agrees.

“This land swap has nothing to do with boundaries, vandalism or poaching. It’s all about the money,” Goake said. “Those ranchers are going to make millions of dollars selling trespasser fees for the elk permits.”

Simpson claims big land owners are coming in from out of state and buying up ranches because of the value of wildlife, “especially where you have a lot of big game and bull elk.”

“The big game hunts, that run anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000, are worth a lot of money, and are worth a helluva of a lot more than cattle grazing, and this basically augments the value of the ranch, because you can get so many elk tags, and the resale value is tremendous,” Simpson said.

Land worth more

On the same day that the SLO attorneys filed their response with the court, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) filed a brief in support of the Attorney General’s efforts. LULAC wants the justices to consider historic land grants given to Spanish settlers in the Whites Peak area.

In its brief, LULAC said, “The Whites Peak land and other land at issue here is highly likely to have originally been land held within community land grants.”

They claim land involved in the proposed exchange “is worth far more than the Land Commissioner asserts when its cultural and historic value is adequately taken into consideration.”

Attorney General spokesman Phil Sisneros told us that the attorney general’s office is still reviewing the response filed with the Supreme Court by the SLO.

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