Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration plans to push a new funding source for conservation projects around New Mexico – a $50 million general obligation bond.
If approved by legislators, and then by voters next year, the proposed “Land of Enchantment Bond” would provide funding for forest thinning, land acquisitions, watershed restoration and other projects around New Mexico, top state environment officials said Monday.
It would be funded by a modest increase in state property tax rates – about $2 per New Mexico household over the next 25 years.
Sarah Cottrell Propst, the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Cabinet secretary, said the bonds could boost initiatives that are otherwise at the whim of “sporadic” state budget cycles.
“These programs are just as much about people and communities as they are about the wild places,” Cottrell Propst said during a Monday interview.
However, at least one prominent legislator said Monday she isn’t sold on the idea.
“I think generally using general obligation bonds for conservation would not be appropriate,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
“I don’t want to cut that pie up any smaller, added Lundstrom, who also said the proposal would take away some of the Legislature’s spending powers.
If the proposal clears the legislature in the upcoming 30-day session, it would go to voters on a statewide ballot in November 2022. Lawmakers would also determine exact funding amounts for each agency involved in the plan.
Currently, the state uses general obligation bonds to pay for three different types of projects – senior centers, libraries and higher education buildings and repairs.
Voters decide every two years whether to approve the bonds, with separate questions appearing on the statewide general election ballot for each of three spending categories.
Adding conservation projects as a fourth category would provide a stable funding source amid year-to-year revenue fluctuations, backers say.
If approved, the $50 million would be available to be spent on project expenses, but not on salaries and other operational costs.
State Forester Laura McCarthy said EMNRD would use the money to prepare forests for prescribed burns – a key strategy as New Mexico grapples with extreme drought and braces for a big wildfire season next year.
As an example, she cited forest thinning that helped contain the Medio Fire in fall 2020 on the Santa Fe National Forest.
The fire threatened to encroach upon Ski Santa Fe and popular hiking trails before it spread into an area that had been part of a prescribed burn the year before.
“It stopped the Medio Fire by allowing the safe space for firefighters to get in there and anchor off of it to control the fire,” McCarthy said.
Meanwhile, the money could also support visitor experience projects at cultural places like Los Luceros, said Patrick Moore, the New Mexico Historic Sites director.
The historic site sprawls nearly 150 acres along the Rio Grande north of Alcalde, and boasts a Territorial-style hacienda and 18th-century chapel.
“The ties that the ancestors of the Ohkay Owingeh have to this land are really dynamic,” said Moore, whose division is housed under the Cultural Affairs Department. “This is about ways we can tell that story in conjunction with Indigenous peoples and show how the landscape and the site has evolved over time.”
Cultural Affairs is also eyeing the proposed bond money to preserve bosque areas and add wildlife viewing areas at the Coronado, Lincoln and Fort Stanton historic sites.
“We often think of historic preservation as only buildings,” Moore said. “But it’s equally important to preserve and protect landscapes and the views so it can remain as true as possible to the historic period.”
Projects improving surface water quality and habitat could also benefit from the proposal.
The Environment Department’s river stewardship program restores streams and wetlands that supply water for acequias and urban areas.
“We’ve degraded our slope wetlands and upland meadows to the point where it’s like the watershed is unzipped, and the water just rolls out,” McCarthy said, adding that consistent funding would help pay for equipment and engineering to restore those natural areas.
Meanwhile, many of the state’s newer climate change initiatives, like the move to conserve 30% of lands and waters by 2030, focus on the health of private working lands.
Debbie Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said she is excited by the possibility of state funding to leverage more federal money for farm and ranch projects.
“Whenever we put in fences to manage grazing or put water in storage, all of that helps sequester carbon, and helps with wildlife habitat and soil health,” Hughes said.
New Mexico municipalities have voted to approve more than $53 million in bonds for parks, trails and open space projects since 1988, according to data from the Trust for Public Land.
“No one agency can afford to do this themselves,” Hughes said. “Nobody has all the expertise, or enough staff, but when you partner and leverage from federal agencies, then it just makes a bigger project, you get more dollars and it’s a benefit to everybody.”
For her part, Cottrell Propst said other states have also used general obligation bonds to pay for large-scale conservation projects and said the timing is right for New Mexico to seek out a stable funding source for similar initiatives.
“We would be irresponsible if we didn’t pursue this right now,” she said.