Copyright © 2022 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, top state environment officials say the proposed “Land of Enchantment Bond” would provide funding for forest thinning, land acquisitions, watershed restoration and other projects around New Mexico.
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 an interview.
However, at least one prominent legislator has expressed skepticism about 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.
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.
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.