Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The White Peak Fight Progresses

Photo copyright ABQ Journal/EDDIE MOORE

Yesterday, the regular session of the New Mexico Legislature convened. Before the session started, there was a rally of folks from the White Peak area against the Land Commissioner's decision to give away prime hunting land in exchange for less desirable land. The following article describes the rally and the progress on the issue.

White Peak Swaps Protested
Dozens Rally in the Snow Against Land Commissioner Pat Lyons, Policies
By Phil Parker
Journal Staff Writer

State Rep. Brian Egolf told a crowd of protesters at the Roundhouse on Tuesday that he’ll introduce legislation to prevent trades like the controversial White Peak land exchanges planned by the State Land Office.

“That’s the only way I see to get away from precooked, back-room deals,” Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said.

Egolf addressed a camouflage clad throng of dozens of protesters who gathered in the snow to decry the White Peak trades as bad for hunters, with signs that read: “You trade state land for junk land” and “Stop giving away our public lands.” Hunters maintain the Land Office is giving up prime elk hunting territory for less desirable parcels.

State trust lands are managed by the Land Office, often with grazing or drilling leases, to generate money for beneficiaries including schools and prisons.

As legislators took turns firing up the crowd, State Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons, who says the trades of land north of Ocate are needed to solve trespassing, poaching and access disputes, was referenced repeatedly. One protestor held a sign with a crown on it that read: “Lyons is not a King.”

“This is turning into a political free-for-all,” Land Office spokeswoman Kristin Haase said later. “My boss is the only Republican in town, and the Democrats are taking aim. It’s so transparent. It’s political.” Haase said that by consolidating state trust land, the exchanges would allow hunters more access in an area that is now a checkerboard jumble of state and private property.

‘A sham’
Under Egolf’s bill, state trust land would only be disposed of through an open auction after weeks of advertising. Deals agreed upon ahead of time between the Land Office and private property owners would not be allowed before the land is put up for bid.

Egolf called the current bidding process, where the Land Office reached deals before the state’s land parcels were put up for bid, “a sham.” The Land Office did advertise that the White Peak trust land was available, but no one besides the four ranchers the office had negotiated with made offers.

The Land Office wants to trade about 11,000 acres of state trust land around White Peak — plus 40 acres in Albuquerque’s Mesa del Sol area and 3,600 acres just south of EspaƱola — for about 9,660 acres from the ranchers.

Egolf also said Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session, that he believes the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office is moving toward challenging the first of the four White Peak trades, between the Land Office and rancher David Stanley, who closed with the Land Office earlier this month. The three other swaps are moving forward but haven’t been completed.

Egolf said “it looks like” the Attorney General’s Office “may be close” to contesting the Stanley deal in court. Egolf said no one with the AG has directly told him that, but he’s reached the conclusion after seeing the office ramp up its review of the trade.

Attorney general spokesman Phil Sisneros said the AG continues to review the deal and “all things are on the table, in terms of our review and intent.” He said Attorney General Gary King “is very much aware of the problems that have been voiced by folks against the White Peak deals going on. He’s also concerned about the transparency in the negotiations, or lack of that.”

With the Stanley deal done, the next trade near completion is with UU Bar Express ranch, which is trading about 3,610 acres in White Peak to the Land Office for 3,431 acres of state trust land. Officials at the Land Office had previously said the deal might close Tuesday, but it was postponed because the Land Office is waiting for feedback from the AG and because title work has yet to be nailed down, according to Bob Stranahan, the Land Office’s chief legal counsel.

At the Roundhouse rally, Ralph Arellanes, a director with the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he was at a briefing held two weeks ago by Lyons, where a hunter from Ocate was loudly questioning the trade. Lyons said, “We don’t need any wiseasses,” and asked that police be called.

“Are we going to let him call us wiseasses?” Arellanes asked the protesters, who replied with a roar. “He thinks the power of money is stronger than the power of people!”

Former Land Commissioner Ray Powell, who is running to regain that post this year, said when he was land commissioner, “I didn’t sell one inch of state trust land.” When issues arose between hunters and private ranchers at White Peak, Powell said, his office would bring them together and mediate.

Powell said that over his 10-year tenure as commissioner he was approached by numerous parties interested in buying or trading for the state trust land in White Peak. He always said no, he said, because White Peak “is one of the few places in the West where you don’t have to be rich to hunt.”

The Land Office’s Haase responded later that Powell was “the commissioner of inactivity.”

“Revenues during his 10-year administration average $160 million per year. Revenues during Pat Lyons’s tenure average $375 million. It’s clear that Pat Lyons is the visionary and the more accomplished land commissioner.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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