By Staci Matlock, the Santa Fe New Mexican

Sandy Buffett, the eight-year director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, is stepping down after the legislative session ends in March.

The Albuquerque native said she’s ready for a breather. “It’s time to enjoy the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and other beautiful places in New Mexico I’ve been helping protect all these years,” she said. “But it will be a short hiatus and not a departure from the movement.”

Conservation Voters New Mexico bills itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, devoted to lobbying for policies that protect the state’s air, water and environment. It campaigns for candidates it believes will support conservation laws and policies while lobbying at the state level for bills that protect air, land and water.

“In the past eight years, under Sandy’s leadership, CVNM has built the membership base, the policy reputation and the financial stability to be a strong force for positive change in New Mexico,” said Jon Goldstein, chairman of the organization’s education fund.

The Conservation Voters budget has grown fourfold and the staff doubled under Buffett’s tenure.

“Sandy Buffett brought a valued pro-environment voice to the legislative table,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who chairs the Senate Conservation Committee. “Under her leadership, Conservation Voters has become a force to be reckoned with and a key player in protecting the natural landscape that makes New Mexico so special. She will be missed.”

Buffett said Conservation Voters has increased its number of “conservation champions” in the state House and Senate, those legislators who the group believes votes the right way. “We’re not yet at a pro-conservation majority in either chamber, but we are on our way,” Buffett said.

She said Conservation Voters has defeated some 200 measures in her tenure that sought to weaken existing protections for clean air, water and land. She counts among the organization’s biggest lobbying successes the defeat of a tax subsidy for a coal-fired power plant, the line-item veto of a $1 million slated to develop the Gila River and passage of the 2012 Natural Heritage Conservation Act.

Last year, the organization saw election of six of the eight candidates it supported. It contacted 217,000 voters prior to the November election. “We need to continue building the political voice for conservation,” Buffett said.

Often on the opposite side of the largely Republican oil and gas industry on issues, Buffett said conservation issues still cut across party lines. Hunters and fishermen come from all political persuasions and support conservation issues that protect wildlife, she said.

In addition, she said, “We’re conveying the message that economic prosperity and a clean environment are linked. We can’t create the next generation of workforce if our kids are suffering from asthma from dirty air, and we certainly can’t prosper as a state if we don’t protect our water.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.