N.M. Federal Lands News

The big political news of the last few weeks has been the fight between Republicans and Democrats over the debt ceiling, budget deficits and spending. By the time you read this there should be a deal but with the animosity in politics now who knows?

One side benefit is that as long as Washington is paralyzed with the debt crisis, there is not a lot of congressional action on things like wilderness designations which is not all bad. So far there have been no hearings on Senator Bingaman’s two wilderness bills for New Mexico. However, as Frank wrote last month, there is always the possibility of another Omnibus Bill that stirs a lot of distasteful stuff into legislation a majority will pass. The conservative House freshmen seem to be flexing their political muscle during the debt ceiling debate. They need to save enough strength to hold off bad land use legislation, too.

This year’s fire season could give legislators plenty of ammunition to argue against more restrictions on use of federal land resources. There have been several good articles on environmental groups’ contribution to the conditions that helped make this season’s fires so huge and destructive. Caren Cowan wrote one of the best of them. These fires should provide Congress with more than enough reason to look at how they started, why there was such a fuel buildup and why the taxpayers are on the hook for millions in suppression costs. The Wallow fire alone cost over $100 million. The Las Conchas fire had over $40 million committed even before containment. Suppression costs are just the start. There will be millions more spent on rehab in addition to the loss of grazing for livestock and wildlife, watershed function and recreation opportunities. Not to mention the emotional stress for the folks who live, work and play in these places to have to look at results of the needless destruction.

The environmental groups have offered some feeble responses. The most convincing argument they could come up with was basically – we haven’t sued over many thinning projects lately. The fact is they don’t have to anymore. They use one endangered species or another to block any use of forest resources through administrative actions often before they have to go to court. Common sense forest management has been beaten down for so long that it’s seldom if ever considered.

We have always had fires, more in drought years but no one can argue that our fires aren’t increasing both in size and intensity. New Mexico and Arizona have had more acreage burned this year than ever. Until we stop managing natural resources by emotion and uninformed public opinion we will see more catastrophic fires. We can’t afford them.

Public opinion has always been skillfully manipulated by environmental groups. There are signs that it’s not working as well for them as it used to. We need to keep the pressure on to make people understand that there are real costs to wacko environmentalism. As public attitudes toward environmental lunacy change, the politics will follow.

The only real cure at the federal level is to fix some of the legislation that allows the mismanagement of federal lands to continue. Maintaining a lizard population in the Permian Basin doesn’t have to drive energy costs higher. Providing habitat for birds and wolves or whatever species the WildEarth Guardians and Center for Biological Diversity want to sue over shouldn’t cost us all the Southwest’s forests. Virtually any group who can open an office and hire a lawyer can tie federal land management in knots and then get paid for it with taxpayer dollars. The Endangered Species Act should be the first law reviewed for responsibility for this mess and the Equal Access to Justice Act should be next.

And until that happens, the option for more county and state control of land management issues has to be explored. The bureaucratic federal system has obviously failed.

Speaking of drought, this one has been tough. The National Weather Service is still predicting a normal late summer and fall rainfall pattern. That is not exactly right. They don’t use the term “normal”. What they say is we have “equal chances” of having below average or above average precipitation. Their drought monitor website predicts New Mexico’s drought will improve over the next three months but within that prediction there is still plenty of room for some places to be short of enough moisture to recover from the long dry spell we have had. New Mexico and Texas are taking the worst of it although drier than normal conditions extend around us in all directions especially into the Southeast. Cattle numbers continue to drop as ranchers cull or liquidate.

Even feed production is being impacted. Farmers can’t irrigate enough to keep crops producing. Hay production is down, and the West Texas cotton crop will be way short this year so cottonseed protein will be hard to come by. What do we do? There are all sorts of recommendations for drought planning, drought management, etc. But in the end there is really no good solution. We just have to do the best we can and make sure our country can recover so we can be ready for the next one. Old timers say there is no way to beat a drought. You just try to get through it the best you can.

Although New Mexico ranchers have had problems with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management over grazing issues, there have been very few serious conflicts over BLM grazing policies during Linda Rundell’s tenure as BLM State Director. Any organization reflects the attitude of its leadership. We have been fortunate to have had Linda in that position. She understands the New Mexico livestock industry and believes in cooperation rather than conflict. The result has been a lot of progress made toward improving BLM resources in New Mexico to the benefit of the livestock industry and the federal lands. That’s not to say there have not been policies we didn’t like but those things originated in the Washington office, not Santa Fe. Linda retired in June. We will miss her as State Director and hope she enjoys her retirement.

I mentioned the drought a few lines earlier and I hate to keep repeating myself but when it’s this dry it’s hard to force it out of your thoughts. We just have to remember that it will rain; it’s just a matter of when and how much. Some parts of the state have started to get some moisture and although the predictions are still not the best they are improving. I hope you are slogging through the mud by the time you read this but whether you are or not remember to pray for rain for the folks who haven’t had enough yet and for God’s blessing on all of us.