New lands boss takes the reins

  • Pat Lyons

 

SANTA FE, New Mexico — Last month, Pat Lyons was fighting two-foot snowdrifts and looking for a hired man to replace him on his 15,000-acre ranch near Cuervo, on New Mexico’s eastern plains. Today, he oversees the New Mexico State Land Office, which manages 9 million acres — 11 percent of the state. As New Mexico’s newly elected commissioner of public lands, he is a rarity: He’s only the second Republican lands boss in the state since the Great Depression.

Almost 90 percent of all the State Land Office’s revenues — mostly from oil, gas and grazing leases — go to the biggest piggy bank in the state: The Land Grant Permanent Fund, a $6.6 billion reserve that fuels New Mexico’s basic services, including the state’s public schools.

Lyons has already raised eyebrows by saying he’d like to bump up the Permanent Fund by increasing natural gas development. Last year, the State Land Office gave $339 million to public schools, prisons and colleges. In 2003, Lyons wants to provide $350 million — about 9 percent of the state’s entire budget.

“We’re moving slowly and cautiously,” he says. “I’m convinced we can do (oil and gas drilling) in a clean way with this technology that we have.”

But “slow” and “cautious” doesn’t describe Lyons’ work so far. Shortly after his election, he raised the hackles of wildlife activists by saying that ranchers should be allowed to shoot or trap problem coyotes on their leased state lands. During his 10-year reign in office, former commissioner Ray Powell prohibited coyote killing on most state lands. Lyons has since pulled back from his earlier position, and promises a review of Powell’s coyote-friendly policy before making any changes. “We kind of jumped out there a little fast,” Lyons admits. “We’re going to review everything first.”

Environmentalists are welcome in his office anytime, he adds. “We want to appeal to those people. And really, the true environmentalists are the ranchers that take care of the land. We care about the land as much as anybody.”

The author is a freelance reporter based in Taos, New Mexico.