N.M. Federal Lands News

by Mike Casabonne

The Federal Land Council News 

Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson has introduced a bill to raise federal land grazing fees to a “rate at a level that is comparable to the rate charged by private landowners in the area or region, as determined by the applicable Secretary.” Nelson’s bill is really just a short proposed amendment to the Jobs Bill that has been sitting in the Senate since March. The Jobs Bill original stated purpose was to give a tax break to employers who hire more people. It failed a cloture vote July 12. It’s not likely that any substantial legislation will be passed between now and the election. The real reason for most legislative action will be to influence the November vote, not to actually accomplish anything productive.

That is the reason for the Jobs Bill generally and this amendment specifically. Nelson, a Democrat, is retiring from the Senate. He cast one of the deciding votes for Obama Care after accepting the “Cornhusker Kickback” concession from the administration as a bribe and thus ruined his chances of reelection. The Republican candidate to succeed him is Deb Fischer from a Valentine, Nebraska ranching family who happens to have a grazing lease on a USDA Forest Service administered National Grassland. She is a front-runner against former Nebraska Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey who has been living in New York for the last several years. It seems that the worst mud Nelson and the Democrats could dig up to sling at her is the fact that her family has a federal land grazing lease. His grazing fee amendment is a ploy to draw attention to it.

Closer to home, Martin Heinrich has introduced a bill to require the BLM and Forest Service to identify federal land parcels over 640 acres without public access. Heinrich, in a close Senate race with Heather Wilson, is also trying to distort a federal land issue to make it look like he is supporting access, especially for hunters, to federal land. Environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Defenders of Wildlife and others who are known for their opposition to hunting are funding a $2 million dollar ad campaign for Heinrich against Wilson. The National Wildlife Federation, also part of that coalition, and its New Mexico chapter used to be sportsman’s groups that advocated hunting and access issues but now just use their sportsman members’ numbers to push environmental causes and candidates who don’t really believe in hunting.

As an environmental activist before his election to Congress and as a Congressman Heinrich has supported and voted in Congress for National Monument and Wilderness designations that restrict or deny access to millions of acres of federal land. Vehicle access is what Heinrich and hunters expect across private land. There are several times as many acres behind locked gates and closed roads on federal lands in Wilderness Areas and National Monuments than Heinrich’s bill would ever identify. He just wants to force land owners to sacrifice their constitutional right to private property, not really identify obstacles to public access.

Does it seem a little contradictory that the same guy who supports closing roads on federal lands and wilderness areas closed to all motorized vehicles and equipment wants to know about small parcels of federal land that don’t have a road to them across private land? A lot of hunters will probably be confused enough to vote for the wrong candidate in this race because of this cynical, hypocritical stunt piece of legislation that has no chance of ever becoming law.

At the opposite end of the legislative spectrum is the passage of Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador’s Grazing Improvement Act. It would codify improvements in the permit renewal process including 20-year permits and require that permits be renewed until the required NEPA analysis is completed rather than be subject to cancellation because the agencies can’t get the paperwork done. It would also require the use of categorical exclusions from NEPA in the permitting process where applicable. It is a good bill but again in an election year and with the Senate under opposition control it is not likely to see further action in this Congress. Congressman Labrador is not facing an election challenge that this legislation would help him with. He is just supporting his constituents.

The dunes sagebrush lizard ruling came down in July. The US Fish and Wildlife Service decided that private landowners and the oil and gas industry were doing enough to conserve lizard habitat and ensure its survival that listing isn’t warranted, at least for now. The fact that it’s an election year and energy production is big in the national news had nothing to do with it. Congratulations to the folks in SE New Mexico and West Texas who worked on the issue and thanks to Congressman Pearce for supporting his constituents against a threat to their economic survival. (That’s two examples in a row of Congressmen doing the right thing. It can happen with the right Congressman.)

Also a SE New Mexico issue, Eddy County Commissioner Lewis Derrick proposed three resolutions from his county to the Regional meeting of the National Association of Counties earlier in the year. They concerned local input into Endangered Species Act decisions, local and state approval of Wilderness and National Monument Designations and the process of legal appeals of federal regulatory decisions. They were forwarded from the regional meeting to the national convention in Pittsburgh held in July. Of the three, the Wilderness and National Monument resolution passed, the ESA resolution resulted in its provisions being adopted as changes to NACo Platform positions on the ESA and the administrative appeals resolution lost on a close vote probably because it was too complicated an issue for folks who haven’t had to deal with federal appeals yet to understand. NACo’s position on these things is important because they represent county governments nationally and lobby congress on behalf of counties. According to Lewis, New Mexico had three of about 30 resolutions proposed. Gaining approval for two out of the three is a pretty significant accomplishment even for an experienced and polished politician like Commissioner Derrick.

As of this writing, there has been over $23 million spent on rehabilitation on the Whitewater/Baldy and Little Bear fires with more to come. The last total on the suppression cost was $43 million. Not to mention the value of the 240 homes and other property lost estimated in the millions. Then there is the emotional cost of the fires to the folks closest to them as evidenced by the comments in Frank’s column last month. They have had to watch the creation of these predictable disasters by the Forest Service aided by the WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental zealots and the courts. Now they have to suffer the consequences of the foolhardy management scheme that caused these forests to be overgrown tinderboxes waiting for a spark and some wind.

Utah State Representative Ken Ivory was at the joint summer meeting of the NM Federal Lands Council, NM Cattle Growers, NM Wool Growers and NM Farm & Livestock Bureau in June. He explained how he was able to get legislation passed and signed into law to demand state control of their federal land. New Mexico needs to do the same.

New Mexico sends two US Senators and three Congressmen to represent us in Washington. That’s a total of five of 535 (435 in the House and 100 Senators). Those are the people who pass the laws that grant the underlying authority for federal land management, the Endangered Species Act, etc. Why should New Mexico families have to watch their homes and their forests burn because our congressional delegation is less than 1 percent of the body that makes the rules about how our natural resources are managed? States east of New Mexico have very little federal land. Some of them have considerable state land resources and they seem to manage them pretty well. If New Mexicans controlled the use of federal land we might not do a perfect job of managing our forests but we couldn’t do worse than the current situation. Check out AmericanLandsCouncil.org and then talk to your state legislators.

The weather maps make it look like the whole state has had a lot of rain. But as usual there are a few spots that have had good moisture and lots of others that have had very little or none. Still for most of us it’s better than last year. Pray for rain and God’s blessing on us all.