Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
A federal and state goal to conserve land and water has set off a firestorm of county-level opposition in New Mexico, with backing from a Texas advocacy group.
The 30×30 initiative in the U.S. began with the Biden administration’s January 2021 announcement to conserve 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order in August mirroring the federal goals.
The governor’s announcement garnered praise from New Mexico conservation groups.
Soon after the federal announcement, the Georgetown, Texas-based group American Stewards of Liberty launched a campaign across the West, targeting 30×30 as a “land grab.”
Catron and Otero counties were the first in New Mexico to pass resolutions – modeled on the Texas group’s talking points – opposing the 30×30 initiative.
“I just think it’s really important for us to hold on to as much of our private land as we can,” Otero County Commissioner Vickie Marquardt said. “We’ve given so much to the federal and state government already – I don’t think we have any more to give.”
At least 15 of New Mexico’s 33 counties followed suit, doubling down once Lujan Grisham set the state goal.
Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert leads opposition to the federal program. She, along with former U.S. Interior secretary and oil lobbyist David Bernhardt, will speak at ASL’s “Stop 30×30” summit in Nebraska this spring.
The out-of-state campaign dismisses “authentic voices” from residents, said New Mexico Wildlife Federation executive director Jesse Deubel.
“I think the effects of climate change are pretty clear,” he said, “and we’ve got to make some serious adjustments, with proactive decisions protecting our wild places, and our lands and waters.”
Lujan Grisham’s executive order sets a goal of conserving 30% of all lands in the state by 2030. An additional 20% of all lands would be designated climate stabilization areas.
“In New Mexico, the loss of natural habitat and biodiversity catalyzed by increasing temperature and drought will outpace nature’s regenerative abilities,” the order reads. “Current levels of protection and conservation will not change this trend.”
Boosting conservation efforts could “make a difference for generations to come,” Lujan Grisham said.
The order directs a committee of state agency leaders to meet quarterly and report on such initiatives as water quality, wildlife migration corridors and carbon sequestration on agricultural lands.
The group, which uses existing funds and recommends legislative policy, held its first meeting in December.
Climate change may be ‘an excuse’
Over the past year, the American Stewards of Liberty has held meetings in Roswell and Tucumcari and presented to the New Mexico Association of Counties.
Many county commissioners cited those presentations as the impetus for the resolutions.
Chaves County has paid $185,000 since 2016 to the American Stewards of Liberty for contracts to advise on land management and endangered species issues, according to information obtained from public records requests by the NMWF and shared with the Journal.
The group describes itself as a nonprofit organization challenging the “radical environmental movement” and “working to protect private property rights and the liberties they secure.”
Duebel said his organization plans to file more records requests to find out if other counties have paid ASL for consultation.
Each resolution is similar in its language about the federal and state goals endangering agriculture, oil and gas and outdoor recreation on public and private lands.
“The Board … opposes the use of global climate change as an excuse to set aside large tracts of land as preserves or open space to fulfill the 30×30 program’s objectives,” many of the resolutions state.
According to the state, about 29% of New Mexico’s undeveloped federal, state and private lands are managed by a federal or state agency.
In a March 1 presentation to the San Juan County Commission, ASL executive director Margaret Byfield said her organization believes data and modeling about habitat loss and rising temperatures do not merit the 30×30 program.
“The problem as they have defined it does not match the solution they are trying to get all of us to agree to,” Byfield said.
Byfield also spoke out against strategies like conservation easements.
The easements usually involve landowners working with a land trust to preserve water and wildlife habitat on their property and prevent harmful development.
“The best managed lands are the lands that are in private hands,” she said.
Commissioner GloJean Todacheene requested that the board hear from people who are in support of 30×30 before proceeding with a resolution.
Land grab seen as ‘fearmongering’
In an October opinion column, New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst said the state committee will work with soil and water conservation districts and private landowners.
“By taking control of our own 30×30 goals and setting up a process to participate in the national initiative, we’ll be able to ensure the needs of New Mexicans are met as we promote wildlife habitat, improve watershed resilience and protect the rights of private landowners,” the secretaries wrote.
The agency leaders also said that farms and ranches using conservation practices could count toward the climate stabilization area goals.
Arguments over land preservation and wilderness designations are nothing new, Deubel said.
In July of last year, the NMWF worked with the Trust for Public Land to purchase nearly 10,000 acres of private property near the Sabinoso Wilderness in San Miguel County. The groups then donated the land to the Bureau of Land Management. The donation created an additional public access point for the wilderness that was once locked in by private land.
Some criticized the land purchase and subsequent donation as a government overreach.
But the landowner was a retired cattle rancher willing to sell the land to the conservation groups. No federal dollars were involved.
“Land grab is like this fearmongering term that certain political-leaning groups tend to use as a way of saying they oppose the federal government, period,” Duebel said. “The government is not running around with eminent domain as part of this initiative.”
Fueled by misinformation
Most counties passed the anti-30×30 resolutions with unanimous votes.
The counties are mostly in rural parts of the state with Republican-led commissions.
Sierra County Commissioner James Paxton said his region has “all kinds of land set aside” for wilderness and wildlife.
“It’s my very strong conviction that we don’t see a reason or a need for a 30 by 30 in Sierra County, much less in the state of New Mexico,” Paxton said.
Sandoval County’s Feb. 23 meeting played out differently.
Commissioner and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jay Block pitched the Sandoval County resolutions as “coming from the people.”
“This is an attack on private property rights, this is an attack on Americans,” Block said.
But Commissioner Katherine Bruch said the resolutions were a “conspiracy theory run amok” and fueled with misinformation by the Texas landowner group.
“It’s not a land grab, and nobody’s going to come and take your private property,” Bruch said.
While the resolution ultimately passed, Bruch and fellow Democrat Kenneth Eichwald voted against it.
For groups like the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, restoring and protecting healthy ecosystems is a non-partisan issue that demands constructive conversations.
“There are protected lands and designated wilderness areas in this state that still allow for cattle grazing, hunting, angling, all kinds of uses that are appropriate,” Duebel said. “But there are parameters put in place to ensure we don’t destroy these landscapes.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.