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Counties can't "take back' federal land

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Dear HCN,

County officials throughout the West are talking about "taking back the land" by abolishing the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service. Last year we began hearing a legal argument that New Mexico was denied statehood on an "equal footing" with the original 13 states, contrary to the U.S. Constitution. This old theory holds that since the federal government reserved no public land in the original states, it cannot legally manage the 23 million acres it claims in New Mexico (see Hotline, p.5).

After Catron and other counties adopted ordinances or resolutions claiming federal public lands, we looked into the implications for the state land trust. We found that the claim has shaky footing for several reasons:

* In our statehood compact with the federal government, like most other states we agreed to "forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated and ungranted public lands." Litigating this doctrine now is pointless and benefits lawyers only;

* The authority of Congress to give and take land from the states was established by the U.S. Supreme Court before the Civil War and is still the law of the land. "Equal footing" means such things as a state's right to be represented in Congress, not equality in land ownership;

* The implication that Washington merely siphons all our resources is wrong. New Mexico's public lands raise about $100 million, which is sent to Washington, D.C., but the state receives more than $150 million from the federal government.

New Mexico, for instance, is the number-one recipient of BLM payments in lieu of taxes (the PILT program) which go directly to counties. In 1994, the PILT was about $10.6 million. National forest revenues, earmarked for public schools, totaled nearly $1.5 million.

Catron County, the least populated but largest county in New Mexico, got about $547,000 from these two sources; Lincoln and Otero counties received a combined $1.4 million.

It is ironic and sad that these counties, which have adopted "equal footing" documents, would suffer the most from it.

Don't forget: Any county taking over public lands also encumbers financial obligation for even minimal management. This analysis also does not account for the economic significance of the nearly 2,000 federal land employees and their families, or their personal or official expenditures in New Mexico.

Finally, the "taking back the land" drive fails to address the value of federal public lands for reasons other than money. What is it worth to be able to take a walk or have a picnic on land that all of us own?

Ray Powell

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Ray Powell is Commissioner of Public Lands for the State of New Mexico, where he administers 9 million acres for the benefit of public education.

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