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A proposed land swap between the federal Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico State Land Office could result in 17,215 acres in Lincoln County switching ownership and the county losing $32,030 in annual compensation dollars for nontaxable federal land.
The county receives about $1.7 million annually under the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program that compensates for land in national forests and under the BLM.
In exchange for the loss, Deputy Land Commissioner Laura Riley told commissioners last week the state will earn more revenue from the acreage than it did from the land that would be swapped to federal ownership in the Rio Grande Del Norte/Sabinoso Wilderness. That money benefits public education. In addition, much of the land that would be conveyed to the state would be suitable for alternative energy programs such as wind and solar, potentially resulting in an increase in the county tax base, she said.
On Oct. 20, officials with the BLM sent letters to interested parties about the possible land exchange. The BLM would acquire about 43,000 acres of state trust land and minerals within the national monument and wilderness area in northern New Mexico in exchange for the transfer of up to 70,500 acres of federal land and minerals located in BLM districts throughout the state, primarily in Lincoln, Chaves, Otero and Torrance counties.
When State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn came into office in 2015,he discovered more than 200,000 of state land tied up in wilderness areas, wilderness study areas and monuments. The lands were inside the federal boundaries and the state was unable to manage them.
While they couldn’t do a full scope exchange, they pinpointed 13,000 acres of the 38,000 state trust acres within the Del Norte and Sabinoso that were producing no revenue, including no grazing fees.
“We felt it would be a win-win to put those lands in (BLM) hands and acquire lands more suitable for the commissioner to manage for the school children of New Mexico,” Rikey said. “That’s how we got here over a 2 ½ year period.
In Lincoln County, 17,215 mineral and surface acres would go from federal to state hands, increasing the potential for growth and development for the county and communities, Riley said. Access to state lands for leasing is less burdensome than the federal system, and in Lincoln County, a potential exists from Ancho to Duran for wind energy development, she said.
“The other impact is to grazing lessees,” she said. “Under state ownership, they can own their own improvements. They can’t under federal and we have fewer regulations, which will increase the ability of a lessee to control access to his property.”
Chuck Schmidt, BLM field manager of the Roswell District, said the land being discussed previously was identified in planning documents for disposal potential. A map can be viewed online at BLM.gov by typing in Rio Grande Del Norte exchange in the search box, he said. Viewers can check how the exchange will affect individual ranches and rights of way. State grazing fees are higher than federal, Commissioner Elaine Allen noted.
“The devil is in the details,” Schmidt said. “That’s why I wanted to bring this to you.”
“How does the bulk of land in Lincoln and Chaves counties get selected?” Commissioner Lynn Willard asked.
A statewide map of available property was reviewed and staff identified those best suited for development and use as state land, Riley said. Those with existing federal mineral leases were eliminated. Land in the Las Cruces District was pulled out in case of potential future exchanges connected to the Organ Mountains.
“If you take away from PILT, how are you going to save taxpayers money in this county?” Willard pressed.
Riley said more productive uses than agriculture are possible, and that solar, wind, oil and gas developers tend to go to the state before the federal government because they think the state will facilitate growth. Proceeds from use of state trust land go to beneficiaries such as education, but Riley couldn’t put a figure next to the increase from the deal. However, she later said the office expects doubling the revenue that was generated on land to be swapped to the BLM. The leasing fee also may drop, but she said that could not be guaranteed.
Schmidt said none of the land identified is connected to historic Fort Stanton, which is a state historic site, because the BLM portion that includes Fort Stanton Cave and the Snowy River formation is a national conservation area and mandated for retention.
Some of the acreage is north of Capitan and east of the El Paso Natural Gas Line, Commission Chairman Preston Stone said. No mining operation or open caliche pits for road material exist on the targeted acreage, she said. “We’ve been trying to not to get anything encumbered,” she said.
Riley said those with BLM leases will have first right to continue the leases under state rules. Meetings with stakeholders will be scheduled Dec. 5 and Dec. 8 in other locations and Dec. 7 in Ruidoso, she said.
Commissioner Tom Stewart wondered how the Trump Administration’s review of monuments might affect the swap. Schmidt said the interior secretary’s report already was submitted and “It sounds like there may be no changes to monuments in New Mexico,” he said. A notice to proceed was issued in October and he was “assured they felt positive about going forward with the exchange.”
Schmidt said the entire proposal is subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires notification, a scoping process and public participation.
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