New Mexico environmentalists lease state lands

  • Cow wanders down by the river on the Rio Puerco lease

    John Horning/Forest Guardians

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.

Traditionally, 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, Powell says.

Although most ranchers aren't happy about the lease, no one has contested it so far.

"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 land.

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," he says.

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 habitat.

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 says.

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."

* Katie Fesus, HCN intern

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