For the first time in the history of the West, environmentalists have won a lease for state-owned land.
Forest Guardians and the Southwest Environmental
Center submitted a joint bid for the 550-acre tract on the Rio
Puerco River in northwestern New Mexico; much to their surprise,
they got it.
"Now we have to shift from asking,
"Are we allowed in the game?" to "Can we make this work?" " says
John Horning of Forest Guardians.
states have leased their school trust lands to ranchers and timber
and mining interests to raise revenue for schools.
Environmentalists say they, too, should be able to lease these
lands, both to increase revenue and rehabilitate the land. But
they've met with stiff opposition. In Idaho, Oregon and Arizona,
environmentalists are locked in court battles while ranchers use
their political muscle to fight what they perceive as a threat to
their way of life, (HCN, 7/25/94).
New Mexico, at
first, seemed no different. The Southwest Center and Forest
Guardians submitted nine bids last year and lost every one.
Prepared to begin a courtroom battle, they expected the same this
year. But on Oct. 1, State Lands Commissioner Ray Powell awarded
them the Rio Puerco lease, making New Mexico the first state to
open its state lands to environmentalists.
Powell, who has absolute power in all state-lands decisions, says
he followed the letter of the law in awarding the Rio Puerco lease,
and New Mexico law has never discriminated against environmental
groups. "Last year, they didn't do (the process) right," he says.
"This year, they did."
The two groups offered
the highest sealed bid - $770 a year - doubling the amount a
rancher had paid in the past. The previous leaseholder would have
had the opportunity to match the highest bid, but in this case the
rancher lost that right by failing to renew his lease on time,
Although most ranchers aren't happy
about the lease, no one has contested it so
"I'm not concerned," says Al Schneberger,
head of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association. "It doesn't set a
precedent. They may find a few leases on the fringes, but that's
all." In a recent meeting with his agricultural advisory group,
Powell says ranchers were more concerned with combatting public
perceptions that they don't take care of the
Schneberger says the Rio Puerco's problems
stem from overgrazing at the turn of the century, but since then,
the range, under the care of ranchers, has shown steady
improvement. "The Chihuahuan desert just doesn't change that fast,"
But Horning says environmentalists
targeted the tract because the Rio Puerco is still "the most
grossly overgrazed watershed in the Southwest." Its riparian areas
are "trashed" and the river is filled with eroded sediment, he
adds. Instead of raising cattle, the two groups plan to add more
fence to bar cows from the river and to plant native willows and
cottonwoods next spring to restore river
Kevin Bixby of the Southwest
Environmental Center says conservationists could never afford to
lease and rehabilitate all the land they'd like to protect, but he
hopes to make this tract a demonstration project to show people how
to stem erosion into the river.
In the future,
Bixby says, his group would like to enter into cooperative
agreements with ranchers to share management of fragile riparian
areas. Ranchers would get title to all fences and improvements and
would profit from a healthier functioning ecosystem, he
Schneberger says the environmentalists'
lease only further polarizes everyone involved, and their words
about cooperation ring hollow.
"They disrupt and
threaten our livelihoods and now they want to be friends?" he says.
"Nobody's gonna trust that."