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Take time to update leasing process to protect public land

As a born-and-raised New Mexican, some of my fondest memories include trailing my dad through knee-deep snow in the Carson National Forest in search of mule deer, and harvesting my first elk with a bow and arrow miles into the Gila Wilderness. These unparalleled landscapes and wildlife are a huge part of what makes our state so great.

But for too long, New Mexico’s communities, public lands and wildlife have not been considered equally under our federal oil and gas leasing system, which prioritizes energy development over the many other valuable uses of our public lands like outdoor recreation and hunting. The Biden administration’s decision to pause new leasing on public lands is a common-sense step toward fixing this system to make sure public lands actually work for everyone.

Not only is this pause a sensible first step, it also aligns with calls for reform from many voices across the state and will put New Mexico on the right path to transition our economy toward sustainable prosperity. This transition cannot be done under the current federal leasing system, which is a relic of a bygone era. For instance, the federal oil and gas royalty rate has not been updated in 101 years and has never been adjusted for inflation. So, while revenue for companies using these lands has increased, returns for the taxpayers who own the lands has not. The system has also prevented communities from maximizing other economic opportunities on our public lands, including outdoor recreation, which drives over $600 million in state and local tax revenue and supports 35,000 jobs. Last year alone, lands on the doorstep of Carlsbad Caverns National Park and within critical pronghorn habitat and big game priority corridors were offered up for leasing and drilling. Oil and gas leasing has also crept closer and closer to Chaco Canyon, despite major public outcry. Any reckless leasing is a problem, but cultural sites and sensitive wildlife habitats are never acceptable places for drilling. Hitting pause on leasing could ensure lands on the doorstep of special places or national parks are never again made available for oil and gas drilling.

The recent Colorado College Conservation in the West poll shows the majority of New Mexicans support the idea that oil and gas development in our state and across the country should be more limited – to protect our irreplaceable landscapes and wildlife. By pausing leasing, the Biden administration is giving the Interior Department an opportunity to take stock of how the system could work better for everyone, and critically evaluate which land should be available for leasing and which land should be managed for other uses like wildlife habitat and other outdoor recreation opportunities.

We are too great a state, and our public lands and wildlife are too special, to continue to manage oil and gas leasing with a process and policies that haven’t been updated in decades. It is time for a change, and this leasing pause will give the Biden administration and the Department of the Interior the opportunity to ensure our public lands and wildlife habitat are left better than we found them.

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