By Staci Matlock | Santa Fe New Mexican

A House committee on Wednesday gave a thumbs up to a bill that would establish a commission to study the transfer of federal public lands to state, tribal or land grant control.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, was the only member of the Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee to vote against House Bill 291, which drew opposition from a number of witnesses.

The bill’s supporters — mostly from New Mexico livestock and farming organizations — say the legislation would simply authorize a commission to study new options for managing federal lands in New Mexico.

Many said they were frustrated with increasing restrictions on grazing and logging on federal lands, blaming federal agency land management practices for the increase in wildfires in the last few years.

“We probably wouldn’t be here about this bill if the federal government was managing land properly,” said Carlos Salazar of the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association. “The federal government is stifling rural economic development.”

About 21 people spoke against the bill at Wednesday’s committee hearing, including leaders from nine tribes and pueblos, and representatives of the New Mexico Acequia Association, environmental groups and sportsmen’s groups.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Fred S. Vallo Sr. said pueblos and tribes rely on federal laws and a relationship with the federal government to protect sacred sites and trails used in ceremonies. He said there’s no guarantee the same protections would be maintained if lands were transferred to the state.

“The motivation behind this bill is simply to allow the state to sell or lease public lands to private interests for extraction purposes,” such as logging and drilling for oil and gas, Vallo Sr. told the committee. “This bill assumes the state will be better stewards of these lands. We don’t believe that is true.”

Ralph Vigil, a Pecos farmer whose property is surrounded by the Santa Fe National Forest, also expressed doubt that the state would be a better land manager than the federal government. “Though we have heartburn with the Forest Service over certain issues, we don’t think transferring land will be the answer,” said Vigil, who also is a member of the New Mexico Acequia Association.

Victor Reyes, legislative director for Conservation Voters New Mexico, called the bill “a waste of time and resources.” Where actions on federal land require public input, there is no similar requirement for state lands, he said.

If transfer of federal lands in New Mexico were ever approved by state and federal lawmakers, the land would likely go to the State Land Office.

Bobby Ortega, state deputy land commissioner, said the study “creates an excellent opportunity to debate all the issues” around federal land management. He said the State Land Office has “a solid record of stewardship.”

Others dispute that, saying that over the years, various state land commissioners have sold or traded off 4 million acres of state trust land with little to no public input. The last such case, involving a swap of Northern New Mexico land called White Peak for land owned by a rancher, ended when the state Supreme Court ruled against the deal.

HB 291 is sponsored by Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo. This is the third attempt by Herrell to get a bill passed that is linked to the transfer of federal land title and mineral rights to the state.

The bill establishes a commission made up primarily of department secretaries and three members of the public appointed by the governor, along with a few lawmakers. Senate Bill 483 is a duplicate of the House bill. Another measure, Senate Memorial 6, would authorize a study of federal land revenues to the state.

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